If you want to get your ideas flowing, go for a walk.
That's what Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found in a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
Study participants who went for walks saw an 81% increase in tests measuring divergent thinking, a thought process associated with creativity in which you generate lots of ideas.
But they saw a decrease in tests measuring convergent thinking, a more linear method of arriving at one solution.
The study lends some empirical validation to the long-held wisdom of the walk.
Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Virginia Woolf all made walks a part of their creative routines. In the business world, innovators like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey have favored the walking meeting. What's more, President Obama ends many of his work days with a walk around with White House grounds with his Chief of Staff.
Fittingly, Oppezzo and Schwartz had the idea for the study while they were walking. Schwartz likes to go for walks with his students when mulling over ideas; together they wondered if the practice had empirical validation.
"It's not a new idea," Oppezzo says. "We just couldn't find any empirical evidence showing this."Validating the wisdom of the walk
In one experiment, participants took an alternate usage test, where they had four minutes to name as many new uses as possible for everyday objects, including a newspaper, a tire, and a button. You could say that a tire could be used as an inner tube, for example, but not a pinky ring.
In another creative experiment, participants were asked to think of analogies. Their goal was to find analogies with a similar "deep structure" in meaning. One example was a robbed safe. An empty wallet was a poor analogy, Oppezzo says, since that's so specifically similar. A better — and darkly poetic — analogy is a soldier coming home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. "The soldier's role is to protect us," Oppezzo says, "but their mind was robbed by the experience of war, thus making it impossible to fulfill that duty," just like the safe was violated.
However, the effects of walking didn't help with more precise answers.
In a different experiment, participants took the remote association test. In this test, they were given three words (cottage, Swiss, and cake, for instance) and were asked to find the word that fits with all of them. (Cheese!) People did worse on that test after walking than if they sat beforehand.
While Oppezzo and Schwartz didn't test for the mechanism behind why walking leads to more ideas — that's for another study — they did form a few hypotheses. It might be that walking takes a fair amount of attention, so you don't have as much mental energy available to filter out uncommon ideas. It might also be that walking lets you make broader associations or spreads your area of focus.How to walk more
Thankfully for us office workers, the positive effects of the walk aren't reliant on trotting around an idyllic California campus: The Stanford researchers found the same creativity-inducing effects when people walked on a treadmill in a dark, windowless room.
So even if you're stuck in a cubicle, you can insert walks into your workday.
"Given what we found, if you have a task that requires many ideas, going for a walk — even around an office — appears to give you a fresh perspective," Oppezzo says. "Also, if you can't do a walking meeting because it's awkward or you need to take notes, going for a walk beforehand seems to be a good prescription."
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