If you are unable to think of a catchy, creative way to present sales data or begin a newspaper column, take a walk. A brief stroll, even around your office, can significantly increase creativity, according to a handy new study.
Most of us have heard by now that exercise, including walking, generally improves thinking skills, both immediately and in the longer term. Multiple studies have shown that animals and people usually perform better after exercise on tests of memory and executive function, which is essentially the ability to make decisions and organize thoughts (although prolonged, intense exercise can cause brief mental fatigue - so don’t take a math test after a marathon).
Similarly, exercise has long been linked anecdotally to creativity. For millenniums, writers and artists have said that they develop their best ideas during a walk, although some of us also do our best procrastinating then.
But little science has supported the idea that exercise aids creativity.
So researchers at Stanford University recently decided to test that possibility, inspired, in part, by their own strolls. “My adviser and I would go for walks” to discuss thesis topics, said Marily Oppezzo, at the time a graduate student at Stanford. “And one day I thought: ‘What about walking and whether it really has an effect on creativity?’”
With the enthusiastic support of her adviser, Daniel Schwartz, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Dr Oppezzo recruited a group of undergraduate students and set out to see if she could goose their creativity. Gathering her volunteers in a deliberately dull, unadorned room equipped with only a desk and (somewhat unusually) a treadmill, Dr Oppezzo asked the students to sit and complete tests of creativity, which in psychological circles might involve tasks like rapidly coming up with alternative uses for common objects, such as a button. Then the participants walked on the treadmill. The treadmill faced a blank wall. While walking, each student repeated the creativity tests, which required about eight minutes.
For almost every student, creativity increased substantially when they walked. Most were able to generate about 60 per cent more uses for an object, and the ideas were both “novel and appropriate,” Dr Oppezzo writes in her study, which was published this month in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
But the practical import of that finding would seem to be negligible, if creativity were to increase only while someone was walking. Most