It’s true! Adobe did a study with college students, putting them through a bunch of tests to see how walking influenced their creative thinking. Specifically, they looked at “novel” idea creation, meaning ideas that are unusual and/or new, and “unique” idea generation, meaning no one else thought of the same idea. In order to be classified as novel and/or unique, the usage of the idea had to be appropriate for the content.
An example given in the study used ‘ideas for buttons’ to explain the difference. Imagining a button as a miniature strainer is a unique, novel idea, as well as appropriate for the intended use as a strainer (provided the button has holes in it); however, imagining a button as a wheel for a truck, while unique, isn’t novel because it’s obvious that the shape is wheel-like. It’s also certainly inappropriate for a button because no button is going to support the weight of a truck.
The study discovered that people identified more good ideas than bad while walking, and that a residual effect from the walking session gave them more and better ideas while sitting than the control group of all-sitters. I found this fascinating, and it rang true with my own experience. Sometimes I’ll be running or walking and suddenly get insight into a new approach to a problem I’m trying to solve. Does this ever happen to you? And it does seem like I am more inspired when I sit down to create after a walk instead of skipping the walk altogether.
The research also looked at whether walking outdoors was better than walking on a treadmill. A previous study performed by Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan (2008) compared city walking with walking in nature and found that those who walked in nature restored their attention and gave them a residual improved performance effect when the walk was finished.
It seems logical that walking in nature would be more beneficial to creatives than walking through city streets or on a treadmill. Again, I feel like this has happened to me. I find city streets overwhelmingly distracting with automobile noise and people talking and the variety of things to look at. Neighborhood walks are much better. When I walk on a treadmill, especially in a crowded gym, I feel anxious, primarily because I’m more concerned with what people are doing around me than my art. Nature walks are – sometimes – boring, which leads me to think I’m safe in letting my thoughts wander, and so they do! Sometimes I also get inspired by the shape of tree branches or a pretty scene, and even the colors of flowers.
I was surprised to see that the study also looked at those who went outside in wheelchairs as opposed to those who walked. The research showed that being outside in nature gave a boost to creativity no matter how you moved, but that the walking motion provided an additional benefit independent to other activity. Thus, walking itself may be an easy way to generate the physical-biological mechanism in our brains that produces better moods that lead to more creativity, no matter where or how you do it, but being in nature is also beneficial to creativity. So the two add up to produce the most creativity of all.
The study didn’t say how long you had to walk and/or be outside, but I’ve found 30 minutes of activity is a good minimum for me, and the longer I’m outside walking, the more creative thoughts pop up.
What works for you? Do you walk regularly, or do you do it only when you need a break or inspiration?