“Walking is man’s best medicine.”
These words, uttered by Hippocrates, are certainly true on a physical level, as regular brisk walking helps in maintaining a healthy weight, prevents or helps manage heart disease, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes, strengthens bones and muscles, alleviates stress, and improves balance and coordination. Even more interestingly, new research continues to show that walking is especially important to boost creativity.
From Hippocrates to Tesla and Steve Jobs
In a study published in 2014, researchers from Stanford University found that walking boosts creative output by 60%, allowing college students participating in the study to enhance their “divergent thinking”, a key element in truly creative cognition.
Indeed, walking has been associated with many a great creative genius: Steve Jobs was known for his “walking meetings” with business associates at Apple, especially when creative problem solving was required. Nikola Tesla, the genius mind behind alternating current (AC) electric system and the Tesla coil used in radio systems, took long daily walks and claimed to have formed his ideas during these strolls before committing anything to paper. Other creative minds in the fields of literature, philosophy, biology, physics, mathematics, and music to name a few, made walking a daily activity that enhances their creativity and problem-solving abilities, while boosting their morale and positive emotions.
Walking, Creativity, and the Cognitive Pause
The reason behind this link between walking and creativity is not completely clear at the moment. Yet, a growing body of evidence from behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and medicine has resulted in some interesting theories. Scientists know that walking requires the simultaneous use and activation of multiple regions in the brain that are needed to coordinate our movements and maintain balance while we walk. A study from 2016 speculates that complex human cognition, and our ability to innovate, developed right along with the ability to walk. In other words, the complex brain structures needed for walking allowed humans to develop increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking. This connection could therefore be the reason that when we go for a walk, we indirectly activate regions necessary for sophisticated cognitive processing, thus leading to innovative, creative ideas!
Walking may also induce creativity through its ability to induce what we refer to as the “cognitive pause”. To understand what the “cognitive pause” is, imagine yourself stuck on finding the right answer in an exam or for a complex problem at work. Your best chance of getting over your incapacity to find a solution after deep and prolonged thinking is to step out and take a break. That is when we experience the Eureka moments. This “pause” is necessary for creative thinking since it allows the brain to free itself from preconceptions and specific patterns of thinking. The cognitive pause requires relaxation of the mind, letting go of the problem at hand, something that walking is perfectly capable of doing.
Walking, Meditation, and Creative Thinking
Walking is similar to another activity that is also known to enhance creativity: meditation. In fact, walking is naturally meditative because it is relaxing, boosting our endorphins and anti-inflammatory cytokines, releasing tension from the muscles, and distracting the mind from other cognitive tasks. Walking is also a rhythmic activity, which is known to lower brainwave frequency in a manner that is identical to meditation. Walking and meditation both keep our brains in an alpha-brainwave state, which appears to be the best state for creative thought.
And so, the next time you need a creative solution to a problem, scientific research suggests that you should let it go, relax, and go for a walk. Friedrich Nietzsche was not mistaken when he claimed, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”.
*This article appears in Health & Wellness magazine’s July issue
** This is part one of a series of articles appearing in Health & Wellness magazine on the topic of creativity, neuroscience, and mindfulness