The science behind why walking can make you more creative

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz recently published their findings that walking can lead to more creative ideas (if you’re bored you can read the full study here).

The research has been spread all around the Internet, with the message being just that: walking makes you more creative.

Unfortunately the research conclusions from the study are sparse. While the researchers undoubtedly found some link between walking and the ability to generate novel ideas, they only share probable theories as to why it does so.

Nobody has yet to fully explore exactly why walking improves creativity.

In their article, Oppezzo and Schwartz state, quite scientifically: “How…might one explain the effect of walking? The explanation will eventually comprise a complex casual pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to the physiological changes to the proximal cognitive processes. These studies eliminated alternatives but did not isolate mechanisms.”

To better understand how we can use the conclusion of this research study to fuel our own creativity, we need to theorize ourselves why walking shows creative benefits. It’s not merely enough to accept headlines that tell us “walking is beneficial for creativity” if we’re to seriously consider such claims.

While I couldn’t find any conclusive research on the subject, I wanted to share with you exactly what I have found in my own years of study; the possible links behind exactly why activities such as walking might spur new ideas in your mind. Surprisingly what I conclude is that walking alone isn’t necessary, it’s merely one type of activity that induces a state of creative thinking.

Let’s explore.

The biological movement affect

When looking through research connecting the affects of physical motion on the brain, we discover one peculiar tidbit of information that has come from the last ten years. In one notable study from Duke University, motion (or the perception of motion) was found to activate part of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus or STS.

The STS is believed to primarily control the perception of where someone is gazing, it has also been found to activate when we notice biological motion, like a human walking across a street or a bird fluttering nearby. Interestingly, the STS is located in the temporal lobe, which additional studies have shown is a main control center for creative thinking (amongst many other things).

In research published in 2005, Alice Flaherty pioneered the incredible theory that the temporal lobe has a powerful impact on creative idea generation. Flaherty presented her findings not only in her research papers, but also in her book The Midnight Disease (which I have referenced countless times on Creative Something because it really is that good).

In her book, Flaherty explains that numerous studies have indicated that activity in the temporal lobe is linked to creative output, particularly due to the link between language process, writing, and drawing.

The link between the superior temporal sulcus located in the temporal lobe and the act of physically walking may be enough to indicate that perceived (or even imagined) motion is the fuel that sparks creative ideas.

Could it be that, when we move about and witness motion around us, the motion of our surroundings and the activity in the STS acts as a type of mental spark that stimulates the brain?

Unfortunately in their study, Oppezzo and Schwartz indicate that the motion-perception link is likely not a reliable cause for creative ideation. Why?

In one of their experiments study participants were asked to sit down after walking in order to complete a creative challenge. The researchers noted the fact that participants in the study continued to show positive creative benefits even while not walking. Idleness, it appears, had no impact on the subjects ability to be creative after walking.

As the researchers state: “The effect is not simply due to the increased perceptual stimulation of moving through an environment, but rather it is due to walking.”

What could the link be between walking and creative output then? We have a few more possible reasons to explore before any conclusions can be made.

Physical vs. mental competition for resources

Another possible reason walking induces states of creative idea generation may be linked to the theory that the body has only limited resources to work with.

The theory explains that walking takes resources from parts of the consciousness to focus on walking, while subconscious resources are left to work productively on creative tasks.

This makes some sense. In theory our brains do only have a limited amount of energy to work with at any given moment. Take energy from one part of the brain – say, worrying about the stress of a job or relationship woes – and put it elsewhere – like the act of physically moving during a walk – and the subconscious brain (where there is still just enough energy to process basic things) is free to explore creative problems and generate ideas.

This theory is an interesting one, one which we’ll have to come back to in a moment.

Unfortunately Schwartz and Oppezzo also claim that there is no solid proof of a biological competition for resources in the body in relation to generating creative ideas. But, again, this is an idea we’ll come back to in a moment, for good reason.

Let’s continue to explore the possible reasons walking encourages creativity first.

Nature and the mind

Many creative workers will exclaim that being outside in nature is one of the most powerful ways to feel energized and ready to work.

Research studies have shown that there is some truth to the claim. Being in the great outdoors, surrounded by nature in its purest forms, has shown to instill a sense of creative thinking in study participants. Nature can make us more creative researchers say.

Ruth Ann Atchley, associate professor of cognitive and clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, who studied a number of hikers and their level of creativity after four days of hiking in nature, explains: “Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses…Therefore, we have resources left over – to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve…”

This notion sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That walking out in nature allows part of our consciousness to subside and relax while the subconscious areas of our brain carry-on with their problem-solving flow. It’s not necessarily a competition for resources, but a competition for conscious attention.

But is it nature that causes the mind to act this way, shifting attention to critical yet easy tasks, or something else? Again Oppezzo and Schwartz have something to say on the matter. In one experiment, they removed nature from their conclusion by asking test participants to simply walk on a treadmill, facing a blank wall.

They conclude: “The effect is not due to the external flow of stimulation that normally occurs with walking. Walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall improved creativity.”

Walking in nature may make us feel somewhat happier and theoretically more “open” to new ideas, but it’s not the cause for being able to generate more ideas.

What’s the best reason for why walking makes us more creative?

The potential answer has been in front of us this whole time. The reason walking can make us more creative is what creative savant Edward de Bono calls: “creative pause”.

The power of creative pause

Creative pause is a state of mind that limits our conscious, filtered thinking while allowing unrestricted, deeper thoughts to flow freely. It’s the state we get into when taking a morning shower, doing the dishes, or (unsurprisingly) taking a leisurely walk.

And on many levels, it makes sense that walking would allow us to feel more creative due to creative pause.

Our brains are working around the clock to process, filter, sort, store, and recall information. Often without us consciously knowing it.

When we are being attentive to any particular problem or interest, that means our high-level consciousness is psychologically filtering out information. It’s like getting up close to a specific word on a piece of paper and being unable to see the rest of the words around it. You can’t complete a sentence when you’re so intently focused on a single word. The brain, too, can’t make the connections required to generate new ideas when we focus our cognitive attention on any particular task or problem (or chore, or job, or traffic, etc.).

By being consciously focused on any particular problem or task, we limit our minds ability to freely process other, possibly unrelated information. It’s only by relaxing the mind and allowing our consciousness to do what it does best that creative insights make themselves known.

The best way to relax the mind in this way is to participate in activities that distract our attentive consciousness and allow the subconscious mind to continue and do what it does best: make connections and problem solve.

As I’ve written before:

“The brain is a fickle machine, but it’s fortunately one that continues to work on problems even while our consciousness is elsewhere.”

Creative pause is the answer. We must get out of our own way.

The effects of creative pause are not limited only to the activity at-hand either, as the researchers hint at in their own findings.

Taking a few moments to relax our consciousness allows our brain to conduct a number of processes and some form of mental “cleaning up” that enables longer lasting effects. Creative pause acts as a subtle equivalent to a good night of sleep. It’s the break our mind needs from being so intently focused on one thing to move along and do something else.

Of course, until additional research is conducted, this is all theory. But there’s enough research behind the theory to indicate that it’s very likely to be true.

Additionally, Oppezzo and Schwartz theorize that two additional probabilities for how they got their results may include a social aspect (as participants in the studies were invited to have a friendly conversation with a researcher as they walked) or by the mere talking-through our thoughts (as many participants actively talked through a problem during and after their walk). Both possibilities do have substance to them, but much more research must be conducted around each before we can successfully evaluate their value.

So yes, if you want to feel creative go for a walk. Or do the dishes, or play with a deck of cards, or doodle. The reason these activities make us feel more creative isn’t necessarily the activities themselves, it’s what they allow our subconscious mind to do without being pushed one way or another.

Now you know.

Photo by Moyan Brenn.