Stanford study finds walking improves creativity


April 25, 2014
Brain & Behavior, Health

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. And perhaps you’ve paced back and forth on occasion to drum up ideas.

new study by Stanford researchers provides an explanation for this.

Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter, according to a study co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.

“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking. We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why,” Oppezzo and Schwartz wrote in the study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Walking vs. sitting

Other research has focused on how aerobic exercise generally protects long-term cognitive function, but until now, there did not appear to be a study that specifically examined the effect of non-aerobic walking on the simultaneous creative generation of new ideas and then compared it against sitting, Oppezzo said.

A person walking indoors – on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall – or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, one of the experiments found.

“I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me,” Oppezzo said.

The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk.

Gauging creative thinking

The research comprised four experiments involving 176 college students and other adults who completed tasks commonly used by researchers to gauge creative thinking. Participants were placed in different conditions: walking indoors on a treadmill or sitting indoors – both facing a blank wall – and walking outdoors or sitting outdoors while being pushed in wheelchair – both along a pre-determined path on the Stanford campus. Researchers put seated participants in a wheelchair outside to present the same kind of visual movement as walking.

Different combinations, such as two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated one, were also compared. The walking or sitting sessions used to measure creativity lasted anywhere from 5 to 16 minutes, depending on the tasks being tested.

Three of the experiments relied on a “divergent thinking” creativity test. Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. In these experiments, participants had to think of alternate uses for a given object. They were given several sets of three objects and had four minutes to come up with as many responses as possible for each set. A response was considered novel if no other participant in the group used it. Researchers also gauged whether a response was appropriate. For example, a “tire” could not be used as a pinkie ring.

The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking, according to the study.

A fourth experiment evaluated creative output by measuring people’s abilities to generate complex analogies to prompt phrases. The most creative responses were those that captured the deep structure of the prompt. For example, for the prompt “a robbed safe,” a response of “a soldier suffering from PTSD” captures the sense of loss, violation and dysfunction. “An empty wallet” does not.

The result: 100 percent of those who walked outside were able to generate at least one high-quality, novel analogy compared to 50 percent of those seated inside.

No link to focused thinking

But not all thought processes are equal. While the study showed that walking benefited creative brainstorming, it did not have a positive effect on the kind of focused thinking required for single, correct answers.

“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,” said Oppezzo, now an adjunct faculty member at Santa Clara University.

Researchers gave participants a word-association task, commonly used to measure insight and focused thinking. Given three words, participants had to generate the one word that could be used with all three to form compound words. For instance, given the words “cottage, Swiss and cake,” the correct answer is “cheese.”

In this test, those who responded while walking performed mildly worse than those who responded while sitting, according to the study.

Productive creativity involves a series of steps – from idea generation to execution – and the research, Oppezzo said, demonstrated that the benefits of walking applied to the “divergent” element of creative thinking, but not to the more “convergent” or focused thinking characteristic of insight.

“We’re not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo,” Oppezzo said. “But it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity.”

The study’s strong findings will have legs, leading to further research on the neurological and physiological pathways, Schwartz predicts.

“There’s work to be done to find out the causal mechanisms,” Schwartz said. “And this is a very robust paradigm that will allow people to begin manipulations, so they can track down how the body is influencing the mind.”

One possible future research issue: Is it walking per se or do other forms of mild physical activity have similar elevating effects?

In the meantime, “we already know that physical activity is important and sitting too often is unhealthy. This study is another justification for integrating bouts of physical activity into the day, whether it’s recess at school or turning a meeting at work into a walking one,” Oppezzo said. “We’d be healthier, and maybe more innovative for it.”


30 Responses to Stanford study finds walking improves creativity

  1. Karla Grobler 12374972 May 4, 2014 at 9:19 pm #

    I find this article very informative and will definitely take a walk if I have to get my creative juices flowing. I found it interesting that is not about being outside and fresh air as much as it was about the walk itself. I understand that it will not help you focus better on everything but if it could help for creativity, why not? It also gives us more reason to be active and live a healthy life.

  2. u13336585 May 4, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    I think this research is very true and nice because walking while your thinking it refresh your mind, keep you concentrated into what your thinking. Is not like I have had or see someone do it, I have seen by myself that walking while your thinking and talking to yourself is very helpful, it might been seen as like you made, but is very helpful and also keep you fit. Because you start to realize something that you don’t know and start to create something new into your mind.

    Sitting while your thinking is not nice like they have mention on the passage above that is unhealthy. So for me i prefer to thinking while I’m working.

  3. Heinrich Eiselen (14052955) May 4, 2014 at 6:53 am #

    I also find that walking when thinking of a creative idea helps me to concentrate and think more clearly and creatively. Walking is also a stress releaser for me, it calms me down and helps me think clearly and find a solution to whatever the problem was I experienced.

  4. Franklin May 3, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    thanks Mulisa..i think i was too much stressed

  5. Alonzo (14126720) May 3, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    I think that this article has just shown me that all the walking I do actually pays off. I agree with Mulisa; for me walking is a way to keep fit.
    I agree with this article in that I struggled for a while with my creative writing skills, but upon my teachers’ suggestion to go for a walk in between writing sessions to help me “Clear my mind”, I saw an increase in my creative writing marks. But it wasn’t as if I walked every time I had a creative essay to write, I walked everyday.

    I think that another experiment should have been done to see whether walking whilst listening to music would provide the same outcome. From what I have seen; most people listen to music while walking. When you listen to music your brain concentrates on the song. When walking without music I’ve noticed that I have mini conversations with myself and I question things that I would usually not think about.

  6. mulisa May 3, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    The reason it didn’t work on you it might be that you were too stressed and all you needed was rest or since this experiment was done on a certain group of people it might not work on everybody

  7. Franklin May 3, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    I wanted to do my assignment and i was stressed , i tried running but it did not work why?

  8. u14024617 May 3, 2014 at 7:14 am #

    From what I know (researched) people who are not physically active are the ones that think creatively,why is this so?

  9. u14049890 May 1, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    The article above comments on research done by Stanford university about how creativity can be increased by walking, as seen by famous entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs who often had ‘walking meetings’.
    Based on research and personal experience, it has been stated that physical activity often boosts creativity and can even stimulate concentration afterwards.
    The science behind this fascinates me since I’ve always been a huge supporter of physical activity in combination with mental activity and how a balance between the two can optimize success.
    By walking, this stimulates blood flow in the body and to the brain and possibly activates pathways in the brain that might not have been as active as before, therefore stimulating creativity.
    I believe this can be linked to balancing the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain. Physical activity such as walking stimulates the right ‘creative’ side of your brain and this can influence a good balance between ‘reason and creativity’.
    Activities such as playing a musical instrument or painting can also stimulate the right side of your brain.
    My conclusion based on the information in the article, my personal research conducted and my own knowledge is that success in any field should start with a balance between physical activity and mental concentration- a balance between both cerebral hemispheres of the brain.

  10. Nadia (14022380) April 30, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    As a student at a university exercise is very important on daily basis. Researched has also shown to be active outdoors boost your creativity. To be active such as walking can improve your marks, because your creativity is boosted. Walking on a daily basis improves your creativity and you will concentrate more during lectures.

  11. mulisa (14038260) April 30, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Based on this article ,does it mean that people who do not exercise do not think creatively?

  12. Eske(14061296) April 30, 2014 at 6:25 am #

    John Muir once said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

    I could not agree more to what John Muir said as well as to the content of this article.
    Walking is one of the best ways to clear your head and to get perspective of your daily life and surroundings. Because of the fact that you gain some personal time during a walk or run, your body releases serotonin and you can finally get rid of all the things that blocked your creative thinking.

    I can relate to Simoné and all the other bloggers who said that walking is the best way to take a study break. I have experienced this “magic” effect of walking and running multiple times before. I also have to add that not just walking, but any kind of productive study break will enhance your creative thinking. Research have shown that building puzzles or playing soduko also improves creative thinking.

    So just take a productive study break and see how your creativity and memory improves.

  13. u14258626 April 30, 2014 at 4:53 am #

    This is one article I have to agree and relate to. I’m an artistic person. I write poems and I do a bit of painting and drawing. As I was reading this article, everything flashed back . I realised that almost every inspiration for poems I have written came while I was walking outdoors. Most of the times I would find myself reciting a piece I have never written. I usually find it hard to come with ideas when I am sitting down and I always go for long walks to find an inspiration. This article is very informative and everything in it makes sense. What I have been questioning myself for quite some time now has been answered in the best possible way.

  14. Simone' (13250427) April 29, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Reading this article made me think about the topic and I have to agree. Activity such as walking or even any sport helps with the creativity of the mind. We all can recite the multiple benefits of exercise.Not only does it help with creativity flow but jump-starts good moods and protects us from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure,obesity ect.
    I remember from my school days and even still when I can’t concentrate while busy studying or working I just take a walk or jog and returning to my work I feel happy and can focus again. Exercising/walking also increases oxygen in the blood, which helps provide mental energy.
    So when you feel drained and tired just go take a walk. You can only benefit from it.
    13250427

  15. 14069165 April 29, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    Well i do agree with this, as a netball player myself i find it more stimulating and productive when i play or practice than just sitting. I think this is so because when you are active you stimulate your mind and body and then creative juices starts to flow, as it is stated above that sitting is not healthy thus the body gets tired and you will not be able to think properly when tired. When i play netball i get new ideas on how to improve or better myself than just thinking about while sitting down.

  16. Lara Rubbia April 29, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    The title of this article interested me as firstly it has been research done by Stanford University and also the fact that something so simple such as walking can have such an effect on our brain and the way we process information and deliver it. As this article commented that walking has been the one factor researched to determine the creativity levels of an individual many more active activities may also have the same effect vs sitting. However it is still astonishing that a form of physical activity can alter the brain so much. I remember in my last year of high school before either my physics or chemistry exams getting up and going for a walk around the school so that I could remain calm and clear my head of all the more focused thinking ( as stated in the article when seated) and just have a peaceful mind. After reading this article I can now understand more my need to go for a walk when I have to much focused thinking, and why when i come back from a walk my brain is full of new ideas and motivation. u14164052

  17. Alex (14009235) April 29, 2014 at 3:02 am #

    In response to Sian I would like to say that I do not believe that enjoying sports is of too much importance. Seratonin and Dopamin are “reward” hormones given off to reward behaviour which is good and beneficial for the organism, which is why they are released when eating, drinking or engaging in physical activity. However, this does not mean that they are unimportant for the stimulation of creative thinking. This is most likely an avenue which should be further pursued.
    Furthermore I believe that Michael is right and such experiments would be very interesting and would perhaps push our understanding of the human mind just that little bit further

  18. simon U14014158 April 28, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    After reading this article and the comments above I had recognized the importance of waling or exercise in general towards creative thinking and stress but also to the realization of something important that whenever I am in stressful situation or in a position where I cannot comprehend information for example when I had to study for exams a few days before and could not understand the text i would just put down the book , starting walking around the house and when I was back things would just be easier to remember and understand maybe this has to a relief from stress because studies have shown that walking can help you relieve muscle and reduce hormones that serve as chemical messengers for stress , but up until reading this article I was unaware of how walking was aiding in my studies and stress relief because this was always an instinctive behavior of mine to walk when I am stressed not because I know walking relieves stress but because I have the impulse to just walk around so one wonders if walking or rather physical exercise is a instinctive response to stress that we have developed, is it a subconscious behavior programmed by our brains?

  19. Sian Grobler u14011744 April 28, 2014 at 9:12 am #

    It is quite a different idea, the concept of walking stimulating creativity. But at the same time, if I had to sit back and think about the whole scenario, it makes sense.

    While dealing with an issue, may it be a numerical problem, language or even a mundane job like ordering boxes that requires creativity to solve – it has happened that the answer has come after some walking. As mentioned above, sport also has been known to held out in the “lack of creativity department.” Above Karli mentioned the hormones serotonin and dopamine which are also produced during physical activity. But what about those people who don’t enjoy sports, or just about any physical activity. So this brings me to wonder if there is at all a way where we could incorporate these two aspects and create a beneficial environment where one could become creative while enjoying it.

  20. Mulisa April 28, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    I did not know that walking or running helps when coming to creative thinking. As for me ,i believed that exercising improves one’s physical fitness only. but after reading this article i learnt something that blew my mind ,but nevertheless i will never deny the fact that exercising helps with creative thinking because most of the time when i am exercising i feel refreshed in my mind ,this helps me to think creatively and freely. According to my experience ,listening to music while walking or running helps with creative thinking. Music creates a relaxing atmosphere while running or walking increases cerebral blood flow as Natasha has said. The combination of this two things(exercising while listening to music) helps your mind to relax and to start thinking creatively and freely.

  21. Michael Ridge April 28, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    I found that this article was very informative. I had previously thought that walking (or rather, physical activity) could help one to think better in all spheres – not just creativity. To add to Alex’s comment, I feel that it would be an interesting study to see how listening to music while on a walk or while seated could affect creativity and other functions such as the focused thinking. It could also be an interesting study to see the effect of items or patterns on the wall as apposed to a blank wall. If any such studies have been done, please be so kind as to direct me in the direction thereof.
    14029350.

  22. Alex (14009235) April 28, 2014 at 1:02 am #

    I must agree with Naizo and Tanya that at times during my school career when I would find myself at a lack for ideas I would always go out an and do some sport. It helped me enormously in clearing my head and tackling the task at hand with more gusto. It is a recorded fact that sport increases the blood flow and as such the flow of oxygen to the brain cells. Past studies have also shown that people who regularly engage in sports have enhanced cognitive abilities, especially in the area of 3D- visualisation.
    It would be interesting to examine the effect of a brisk walk while listening to music. A brisk walk is considered exercise after all, and the music causes something commonly known as the “Mozart effect” – increased cognitive abilities due to stimulation of mainly the thalamus and hypothalamus region but also the auditory cortex..

  23. Karli vd Merwe 14011787 April 27, 2014 at 11:59 pm #

    It is not surprising that walking stimulates the mind’s creative abilities. A previous research study of mine revealed that exercise as a whole can contribute to an improved memory. Many people experience a sense of well-being and motivation after a workout, and this is due to the “feel good” hormones (i.e. serotonin and dopamine) that are released during physical activity. These endorphins stimulate dendrites and neurons in the brain to grow and connect with each other, which ultimately leads to improved cognitive functioning. Esmarie also pointed out that exercise during study breaks is important, so go for a walk; a healthy body houses a healthy mind.

  24. Mphuthi 14005362 April 27, 2014 at 3:23 am #

    To add to Natasha’s comment, I would also like to highlight that it has been proven that the right side of the brain has been linked to skills such as judging distance which is closely related to walking. Thus it would not be wrong to state that since creativity is also linked to the right-side of the brain which is stimulated by walking, there is bound to be an increase in creativity influx whilst engaging in an act such as walking.Plus from my own experience, I have discovered that walking, especially in serene places is a perfect way to relax, and once I am relaxed, I am able to really tap into my “creative juices”.

  25. Natasha(14044082) April 27, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    I would like to view the effect that walking has on creativity from a biological angle. When thinking logical about it, walking in general increases your heart rate which leads to increasing your blood flow, this ultimately leads to higher cerebral blood flow. Studies found that when there is a higher cerebral blood flow found in particular regions of the brain that that then leads to high performance of creative task. It will be an all round improvement to include walking in your daily routine.

  26. Jeremy (14082935) April 26, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    I have realized that not only does walking and encountering new places (i.e traveling) increase your creativity but also enhances your imagination. Imagination is very important because in some instances it can make you an autonomous thinker and thus you always think out the box and you don’t always necessarily follow conformity. This in turn can create change in the world we live in now where everyone tends to follow other people. Therefore imagination or creativity can lead you to be the person who you are today, as said by Alfred Lord Tennyson- “I am part of all that i have met”. For many people including myself, walking can be a therapeutic exercise as well because it forces them to think of other things other than the stresses of life.

  27. Saffiya 14056102 April 26, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    I was also remembering all the speeches and essays I ever wrote whilst in high school when reading this article. I always had a problem with sitting for too long without doing anything so I would get frustrated and go for a walk or to ride my bike with my sister. By the time I came back to my room I had developed several ideas to use in my writing and drawing. Like Tanya I associated it with the outdoors and being inspired by my surroundings which is why I’m actually quite amazed that it had nothing to do with my environment but rather with the act of walking itself. My mother used to associate it with there being a fresh flow of oxygen in my body and, much like my teachers, urged me to do regular exercise.
    I suppose that it never would have occurred to me that walking is responsible because I’m not very active and prefer to spend time sitting indoors or in the garden.

  28. Esmarie (u14002711) April 26, 2014 at 2:30 am #

    When a student starts school, a list of study methods is proposed over and over again. The general study tips would include a clean working environment, fresh air and quiet surroundings. Never has the advice in the above mentioned article been given. The significant effect that walking has on brain activity is fascinating. The benefits of exercise in study breaks have been emphasized, but never has it been suggested to exercise while studying. Although proved that the thoughts produced while walking are creative rather than convergent, students could still benefit when further research reveal the appropriate physical activity that is linked to the specific mental process, e.g. mathematical vs creative.

  29. Tanya Strydom (14104262) April 25, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    I must agree with Naizo. I always take the dogs out for a walk in the mornings and during my school career when creative writing essays where the norm I found that it was on those morning walks that I had my greatest inspiration. I always penned it down to being outside and being inspired by what was around me, yet surprisingly as this study shows even walking on a treadmill is enough to get the creativity flowing. It’s quite fascinating to think that it all has to do with the exercise and not the environment around you.

  30. Naizo April 25, 2014 at 8:51 am #

    There was a time when I took part in public speaking. The course lasted for about a month or two. A topic was given prior to the week when the speech would be delivered. I remember thinking of ideas (for a speech) that related to the topic given, but at the same time I wanted to think of ideas that did not immediately sell out what my speech would be about. After reading this article I am reminded of all those times when I would ‘experience’ a flow of ideas which was the case when I stood up and went for a walk. (14018510)

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