Many of history’s most famous thinkers were walkers—Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, and Walt Whitman, to name just a few—and many of them held a deep belief that walking boosted their creativity. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, from Stanford researchers gives scientific weight to this belief.
The study, composed of a series of four experiments, looked at idea generation conducted while sitting and while walking, using different experiment constructions, for example, walking outside versus walking on a treadmill, sitting first, then walking, and so on. Walking was the clear winner. In the first and the most straightforward experiment, where participants completed a four-minute task of creativity first while sitting, then during a walk on the treadmill, researchers found that walking increased participants’ creativity by 81 percent.
Walking itself, whether done on the treadmill inside while starting at a blank wall or outside, was found to produce this greater creativity. For example, two out of the four experiments compared creative idea production for sitting, walking on the treadmill, and walking outside. Participants exhibited greater creative divergent thinking—or what you might think of as free-flowing ideas—whether they walked outside or on the treadmill. Moreover, participants experienced a residual creative boost when they were tested while sitting after they had first walked. In contrast, participants who were tested twice but both times while sitting did not show any improvement, demonstrating it was not merely an issue of repetition.
To measure creativity, researchers administered two types of tests. In the first three experiments, participants were told to generate new uses for common objects, such as a button, a shoe, and a key. As an example of this kind of test, one participant heard “button” and brainstormed “as a doorknob for a dollhouse, an eye for a doll, a tiny strainer, to drop behind you to keep your path.” The last experiment used a different kind of test for metaphoric-creativity thinking, which asks participants to come up with symbolic equivalencies for the prompt they are given. For example, a candle burning low might produce “life ebbing away” or, as an example of a more creative response, “the last hand in a gambler’s last card game.”
Previous studies have already found that aerobic activities, such as running, promote greater creativity. Yet, for those who don’t have time to run or who simply don’t want to, taking a quick walk can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing. On a broader note, it also points to the importance of gym class in schools, which seem to be disappearing, and provides yet one more reason for effective and supported workplace wellness programs.