If you’re like me and consider yourself a sensitive, creative type, then you may have a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing.
And you're in good company.
Since at least the times of Aristotle, who held his lectures while walking, great thinkers have employed walking to facilitate their creative process. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an avid walker and was famously quoted as saying:
"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking."
Author and philosopher Henry Thoreau also said “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas Hobbes went one further by having a walking stick with a built-in inkwell so that he could write when inspiration struck him during his walks!
It’s not just philosophers and writers that have sworn by the benefits of walking - Beethoven loved to take walks through the countryside when he was composing. Charles Darwin went on two walks daily. And in more recent times Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, insisted on walking meetings, especially when creative problem-solving was required, something that others like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey now follow suit.
So while creative types have believed in the benefits of walking for their creative process for centuries, there is now scientific evidence to explain why.
How exactly does walking enhance creativity, according to science?
A handful of empirical studies indicate that walking enhances cognition in terms of memory, divergent thinking and cognitive control, prevention of cognitive decline in the elderly, improved mood, and enhanced creativity.
A Stanford University study revealed that walking boosts creative output by up to 81 percent. In the study, 176 adults were given a variety of tasks commonly used to measure divergent thinking, a key element of creative thinking – for the initial generation of novel and appropriate ideas. It was found that the setting did not matter. The effects were just as strong indoors on a treadmill facing a wall as they were outdoors, so there is something in the act of walking itself, irrespective of environment. Importantly though, the same effect was not found for convergent thinking that is more linear and systematic. So for certain tasks, staying still is preferable.
Three brain researchers authored an article titled “Thinking, walking, talking: Integratory Motor and Cognitive Brain Function”, where they argue that motor and cognitive processes are functionally related and most likely to share a similar evolutionary history. They assert that the complex brain structures needed to accommodate walking upright allowed the potential to develop increasingly sophisticated modes of thinking. So, when we go for a walk the brain structures that allow us to walk in a rhythmic, purposeful way also allow us to access our higher-level thinking abilities. Several other studies have shown that problem-solving has been demonstrated to rely on these cognitive-motor interactions.
Further support for the connection between movement and thought involves motor imagery. For example, quadraplegic patients are able to operate an EEG-based control of a hand brace with nearly 100 percent accuracy by mental imagination of specific motor commands.
BUT, it’s not just any walking that important for creativity. These studies have shown that there is a specific type of “walking-for-thinking”, that is separate to other forms of walking and has an optimal individual speed and steady rhythm. Walking at our own pace creates a feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and that of our brains - a mental state that cannot be achieved as easily when we’re doing more vigorous exercise like jogging or going to the gym.
A form of meditation
Walking may also offer people ‘cognitive pause’, which is known to be an important part of the creative process. Neurologist Vinod Deshmukh asserts that new insights come to us when we “pause and unload” our minds. The ‘letting go’ of the problem can allow for creative inspiration. The rhythmic nature of a leisurely walk, with our own distinct cadence, may help to lower brainwave frequency, similar to meditation.
A growing number of studies suggest that spending time in nature can rejuvenate our mental resources that man-made environments deplete.
Not only is walking great for improving performance and productivity, it has the added benefit of countering the negative health effects of inactivity that has become so prevalent in today's society. Schools cutting back on physical education in favour of seated academics ignores the tight interdependence between the body and mind.
Walking also makes the heart pump faster, circulating more blood and oxygen though the body, including the brain. So, all aerobic exercise improves mental function. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells and staves off mental decline that comes with age.
An easy hack for your next creative project
Walking is an easy-to-implement strategy to increase creative problem solving - so will you give it a try for your next creative task?