A ramble on walking and creativity
Walking is linked to increased creativity, according to science. But the pandemic has influenced who walks, and why.
One late afternoon in 2019, I was sitting in my living room, chatting with a friend on the couch. My husband Sean arrived home from work, greeted the two of us, kissed me on the cheek, and announced he was going out for a walk while the sun was still out.
"A walk?" My friend exclaimed when I told him where my husband had gone. "Really? That's so cute." Americans famously don't walk.
But Sean, being Scottish, has always enjoyed aimless walks. I'm not sure what he does on these strolls, but I think he looks at birds, and comes up with poems in his head, because he leaves with a copy of Birds of the Pacific Northwest in his arms and sometimes comes back with new poems, some of which are about birds. (Sean has written so many bird poems, in fact, that he has amassed a poetry collection, as yet unpublished, which he has also titled, confusingly, Birds of the Pacific Northwest.)
My bird-watching poet is not alone: There's long been an anecdotal association between walking and creative thinking. Many famous thinkers took long walks, some with a notebook to jot down their thoughts—among them Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. Soren Kierkegaard is quoted as saying: "I have walked myself into my best thoughts." In his book Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes that "walking and thinking have been amiable companions since ancient times," citing a list of thinkers, dating back to ancient Greece, who considered walking a key part of any creative problem-solving process. (Apparently Charles Dickens walked ten or twelve miles in an average day—who knew?)
As recently as 2014, a Stanford University study was the first to scientifically measure the impact of walking and creativity. (It's called, charmingly, "Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking.") The study comprised four experiments. In each one, the participants were asked to complete two tests measuring creativity while walking versus while sitting down (they were Guilford’s alternate uses test [GUA] of creative divergent thinking and the compound remote associates [CRA] test of divergent thinking, if you're taking notes at home).
The results, in their words, "demonstrated that walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after," with walking leading to an average increase of 60% on the creative tests.
The fourth and final experiment in the study is the most interesting. In this one, the researchers wanted to answer the question definitively of whether it was really the act of walking that boosted creativity, or if it was just...being outside, with all that can entail: fresh air, birdsong, or simply the opportunity for novel experiences that comes with leaving your front door.
So in the last experiment in their study, the Stanford researchers divided their subjects into four groups: one group took the test sitting down at a table inside, another took it indoors while walking on a treadmill, a third while walking along a path outside, and a fourth while being pushed in wheelchairs along the same outdoor path. The two walking groups still performed the best, despite one of them being on a treadmill in a small, boring room. The final experiment thus demonstrated that there is something specific to the act of walking itself that positively influences creativity, not just being outdoors.
(We still don't know why walking boosts creative thinking, by the way. That part remains a mystery.)
Roughly a year after my husband's walking habit was called "cute," walking seemed to be enjoying a renaissance in our Portland neighborhood. With the arrival of the pandemic, daily walks were no longer just for dog owners, old folks, and bird-loving Scottish poets. For those with access, and ability, parks and walking trails became the only places you could go to escape the confines of the home, get some exercise, and safely socialize with friends. For myself and other suddenly remote workers, the daily walk became a kind of "fake commute," a demarcation between bed and work, or between work and leisure.
It turns out this wasn't just my impression, either. An article in the travel section of The Guardian noted the popularity of walking holidays, as well as urban walking, and called 2020 "the year of the walker." An MIT study revealed an increase in "recreational walking" during the pandemic, though it noted an important income disparity: higher-income neighborhoods had an increase in recreational walkers, while walking actually declined in lower-income neighborhoods. (The researchers supposed that wealthier people have more free time and live in safer areas with lower speed limits, better infrastructure, and access to parks and other outdoor amenities.)
Somehow, something so humble and fundamental as walking on your own two legs has become a luxury, and with it the associated benefits for the creative mind.
I don't have an easy way to fix this. But the good news is this: it doesn't need to be a particularly long or strenuous exertion to have a cognitive benefit. (The walks in the Stanford study were short, and the walkers were allowed to set their own pace.)
So the next time you're stuck on a problem, and you have the luxury of a walk available to you, remember that the data is on your side should you want to take your thoughts for a stroll. You may well be more productive than if you'd stayed at your desk, slowly banging your head against a computer screen in frustration and self-loathing. It turns out walks aren't just for poets and philosophers anymore, and that's a great thing for creativity.
Anna Weltner is a writer and content curator at MeaningSphere.
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