Walking Boosts Creativity

creativity the human imagination project the quest: improvisation for transformation walking May 31, 2024
An AI generated image of a rabbit hurridyly walking the rabbit is carring a traveling case. The rabbit is walking towards a quotation written in white letters.

Our most distinctive of traits

Humans have been walking upright for millions of years, exactly how many millions is a matter of some debate, but suffice it to say, that we have been walking for a long time. A very. Long. Time. Who knows what these three early human ancestors were thinking, when they walked through wet volcanic ash, 3.6 million years ago. Why our early ancestors started walking is unclear, what is clear is that they kept walking, and walking is one of our most distinctive of traits.


Caption: The original Laetoli footprints were discovered by Mary Leakey and her team in 1976 and excavated in 1978. This additional set of footprints was discovered in 2016 an represents the footprints of two individuals. Image Credit: original figures by Fidelis T Masao Elgidius B Ichumbaki Marco Cherin Angelo Barili Giovanni Boschian Dawid A Iurino Sofia Menconero Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi Giorgio Manzicropping/editing by Dennis Pietras, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Since our ability to walk upright, evolved along with our brains, it would make sense then that the act of thinking and walking are intricately entwined. Walking helps us think. Indeed, a recent Stanford study found that not only does walking help us to think, it helps us to think more creatively.

Walking and creative thinking

The study, “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found that that walking increases creative ideation. This is not just because when walking around outside, one might be exposed to more perceptual stimulation. Instead, the increased ideation is due to the act itself. They write, “whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.” Thus it seems, at least at this stage in the research that it is the act of walking that helps with creativity and idea generation, rather than where one walks.

So what is a creative idea?

In their paper, the authors define creativity, as “the production of appropriate novelty. Creative ideas are not only relatively novel; they are also appropriate to the context or topic (e.g., lighter fluid is a novel ingredient for soup, but inappropriate).”

The approach to helping participants generate creative ideas was simple, “rather than trying to improve people’s command of the creative process, we simply had people walk at a natural pace. If successful, it is an easily adopted (and healthy) approach for enhancing creative output.”

For those who don’t want to read the 11-page article in which the study results are published, May Wong, writing for the Stanford News provides an excellent summary in which she details the, “four experiments involving 176 college students and other adults who completed tasks commonly used by researchers to gauge creative thinking.” As Wong, notes, “the overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found.”

For those interested in reading the full-paper, it is chock full of interesting information. While the study noted a strong correlation between walking and boosting creative ideation, the causal mechanisms—why walking works are still unclear.

Here at the Human Imagination Project, we are particularly fond of walking because it can be an integral part of one of our most popular workshops, The Quest: Improvisation for Transformation.

While each Quest is different, many participants spend a fair amount of time on their Quest walking and many people report that the act of embarking on a Quest, helped generate novel thoughts, insights, and ideas.  The study might that the act of walking while out on a Quest, could play a significant role in that process. It would be an interesting (if not perhaps challenging) experiment, to have a Quest which involved little or no walking. That would significantly alter the experience.

What is clear? If you are stuck and need some novel, divergent thinking, instead of hitting your head against the wall repeatedly, walk away from it, and keep going.

And if you need a little justification, since it might feel like you are doing nothing, Rebecca Solnit, in her extraordinary work, Wanderlust: A History of Walking offers the following: 

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is hard to do. It's best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”

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