Can Walking Make You More Creative
Many writers, artists, & musicians claim walking helps their creative process. But, is there any scientific proof to back this up. And if so, what is happening when we walk to make us more creative?
It takes about five minutes after passing the letterbox, across the always empty little park, past a row of slowly gentrifying low cottages, maybe waiting for a car or two to pass on the main road, under the giant pine trees, then through another usually empty park to reach a path that winds along the waterfront. It’s about a 20-minute walk alongside the boats, yachts and trawlers, to the point where I turn and start walking back.
But, I never count the time.
I walk this path whenever I can when in Adelaide. I don’t do it for the exercise. I do it because every time I return, my mind fills with ideas. I’m itching to write, or sketch, or build or do something. You can’t take a pill to make you more creative, but if you could, it would probably feel like this walk.
Walking and Creative Writing
Reading Anne Lammot cemented the connection between walking and creative thinking. She says the key is to make sure the walk isn’t exercise. That kind of focus, or purpose, robs the walk of its creative power. This idea of walking as a way to find inspiration is one many creatives understand on an intuitive level. I’ve written before about purposeless walks, the power of going out into nature, and even this walk in Adelaide (in No Missing Tools).
Now let’s take a little look at some of the scientific evidence behind this experience. Can walking make you more creative?
Studies on Exercise and Creativity
It’s been widely established that exercise can enhance your mood. However, this study also confirms it can enhance your creativity as well. It seems the best forms of exercise for boosting creativity are ones with little cognitive demand, so maybe running or walking, rather than a complicated aerobics class or something that demands a lot of attention and focus.
Another study suggested that even a single 35-minute treadmill workout can improve cognitive flexibility, which is a vital part of creative thinking and our ability to give unusual rather than rote predictable answers.
One fascinating study found that walking in particular improved creativity, unlike most research, which focuses on aerobic exercise or the kind of exercise that makes you feel like you’re working out. In the study, people were more creative while walking than sitting, with twice as many able to create at least one high quality novel response to a prompt question in one test. In another test, their creative output increased by an average of 60 per cent!
“This isn’t to say that every task at work should be done while simultaneously walking, but those that require a fresh perspective or new ideas would benefit from it.”
The reasons for this aren’t clear. It could be that walking does something to the way our memory works, blocking some of the unhelpful thoughts that stop us making fresh connections with the idea or problem we are trying to think about. Perhaps, we are less self-critical and self-conscious while we walk.
It seems that a daily walk was a popular source of inspiration for many composers, including Mahler and Tchaikovsky.
Understanding an Important Creativity Trigger
So, what’s going on here? We’ve got up and moved away from the place where we work. We’ve got our body moving but not so much that we have to think about it. We’ve got our brain switching gears, so to speak, making our thinking a bit looser in, less self-obsessed, a lot more relaxed.
Something the studies don’t mention is the way we interact with our environment on these kinds of “good for our creativity” walks. We aren’t head down concentrating. We are noticing things around us, but not obsessed or worried about them; we let them be. It’s kind of like mindfulness meditation, except we don’t keep coming back to a focus. In fact, we sort of don’t focus at all. We just notice, enjoy and move on. This opens us up to the world, allows the sense of wonder and awe some space to work within us again, helps us to notice how rich, and deep, and varied reality can be.
In a way, a good walk is like window shopping for the soul.
When we get to the point where reality feels lighter, like something we can suspend so that we can move around in our thoughts, without a compulsion to act, store or catalogue the experience, then something deeper can rise from within us, something that easily goes into hiding under the harsh glare of our screens, our stresses and our own self-criticism. Call it your soul, your muse or your inspiration. Whatever it is, it seems to feel safe to come out to play when we walk.