Category Archives: Psychology

Walking and the Creative Brain

“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

Happiness: Creating, Fostering & Spreading the Cheer

We live in a time of unprecedented stress. We are bombarded by stressors every minute of every day of our lives, be that on the professional or the personal level. As we celebrate the International Day of Happiness, the question of maintaining a sense of balance and content becomes vital for our emotional and physical well-being.
The fact that the United Nations had to dedicate an international day to celebrate an emotion that should be the essence of our existence is a clear sign of the times. That did not go unnoticed by governments around the world, with some going as far as forming cabinets centered around creating happiness, and dedicating ministries to spreading and maximizing happiness in society (a prominent example is the UAE).
Moreover, an emerging field of research is thriving as scientists investigate factors that create happiness. Early signs and data are reassuring. Happiness seems to stem from within, albeit a conscious effort should be made under certain circumstances to attain it. The research reports that wealth and happiness are not directly correlated. Additionally, happiness and positive thinking are not dictated by nature or nurture alone, meaning that, while our genes and our upbringing play a role in setting our perspective in life, conscious effort is critical for determining our happiness levels.
One interesting finding, for example, is the role empathy plays in generating happiness. Apparently, by sharing feelings of others, we become more fulfilled individuals. A healthier and happier community, therefore, is a more empathetic and humane community.

Finding a Purpose & Defining Oneself: On What’s Needed for Success

In his writings exploring moments of greatness that separate exhilarating success from monotonous hours of mere competence, Robert E Quinn, University of Michigan’s Professor of Management and Organization, defines two “states of being”. The Normal State refers to the comfort-centered (sticking with what we know), self-focused (placing our interests above those of the group), externally-directed (complying with others’ wishes to avoid conflict), and internally-closed (avoiding risk-taking) set of behaviors that direct our day-to-day lives on the professional and personal levels. Quinn suggests that while the normal state of being is comfortable and safe, it leaves us with a feeling of languishing and emptiness. The second state Quinn describes is the Fundamental State of Leadership, which he suggests is critical to creating moments of glory and accomplishment. In a nutshell, the Fundamental State is everything that the Normal State is not. Rather than being consumed with self-promotion and personal interest, driven by pleasing others, worrying about their perceptions of you, and following the easier path, the Fundamental State prompts you to focus on one goal that trumps all else: delivering results. This state is usually attained under duress, time crunch, and exceptional circumstances where project completion becomes of existential importance for the organization/ team.

Under such circumstances, leaders become results-oriented,  fixated on the issues that matter the most and ignoring distractions because there is no other way forward. The result? Moments of brilliance and extreme productivity. When dissected, the foundations of the Fundamental State could be utilized to attain enduring, rather than fleeting, times of glory and triumph. According to Quinn, these foundations are: 1. Being results-centered, 2. Being internally-directed, 3. Becoming team-focused, 4. Opening up for feedback and adaptability.

An essential step towards implementing those foundations is defining your core principles. You cannot be relentlessly results-oriented without asking the core question: “What results do I truly care about?”. Neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl similarly postulates that our ability to thrive lies in finding a greater meaning to our existence (Man’s Search for Meaning, where he defined logotherapy, a form of existential analysis, explores this concept in more detail).

Maya Angelou once said that success is “liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it”. It is impossible to imagine success in those terms if one has not defined their purpose and their passion in life, then striving to achieve it on a daily basis. For leaders, it is becoming clearer that the essence of excellence is dedication to benefit the collective, rather than one’s self. A lesson that could not be stressed enough in a world that appears to glorify hostility in the business world.

Culture, Cultural Psychology, and Self-Awareness

The study of Cultural Psychology has its early beginnings in the study of National Psychology, which, in the nineteenth century referred to characterizing the psychological make-up of nations and distinctive populations of people. Such studies, though, cannot be complete without presenting a clear definition of what culture is. Consequently, there has been an abundance of interpretations of the word, what it stands for, its dynamics, and what its essence is.

From Sir Edward Tylor’s elaborate definition in 1871 that “culture is the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and many other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”, to Wilhelm Wundt’s brief illustration in the early 1900s that “culture refers to shared norms and customs or shared mentalities”, the definition of culture has been evolving. As recently as 1984, Roy D’Andrade defined culture as “learned systems of meanings, communicated by means of natural language and other symbol systems, having representational, directive, and affective functions, and capable of creating cultural entities and particular senses of reality”. While Kirmayer argued in 2006 that culture encompasses the systems of knowledge and practice – sustained by cognitive models, interpersonal interactions, and social institutions – that provide individuals with conceptual tools for self-positioning. These are but a few of the definitions that cultural psychologists and anthropologists and sociologists have provided to define culture.  One thing stands out, though, as we study the evolution of such definitions: the old ones reflect an understanding of culture as an isolated entity that is less dynamic and fluid, more geographically based, and internally homogenous. On the other hand, modern definitions are influenced by globalization and technological advancements, which mean that no population lives in isolation from its surroundings. The modern times have made people’s norms, values, practices, ideas, morals, and even habitats more dynamic than ever. This is reflected in Lawrence Kirmayer’s call for cultural psychologists “to concentrate on situated practice and interactional procedures as the way to sustain any analytically useful notion of culture”.

Cultural Psychology
Therefore, cultural psychology has to integrate the effects of globalization and interconnected cultures and peoples into its study. At the same time, we have to be aware of the fact that these studies of different cultures and psyches are mostly (and until recently exclusively) performed by researchers from one culture (Western culture), who started by studying their own communities, and expanded their studies to cultures of the East. It is admittedly simplistic to divide cultures into two camps, West vs. East. This is demonstrated by studies that have shown heterogeneity within the same country. Indeed, as early as 1887, Tönnies made the distinction between the study of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). Data collected in urban, large-scale, high-tech, heterogeneous, and permeable Gesellschaft environments differ significantly from data collected from rural, small-scale, low-tech, homogeneous Gemeinschaft environments even within the boundaries of the same country.

This adds a new level of complexity to the study of cultural psychology. But in essence, cultural psychology is understood to be the “comparative study of the way culture and the psyche make each other up… it is the study of the distinctive mentalities of particular peoples” (Shweder, 2003). More importantly, though, cultural psychology has opened the door to the study of the relationship between culture and psychological processes and how culture becomes an integral part of cognitive, social, and moral development.

Culture and the Self
The most striking and interesting development in the study of cultural psychology is the understanding of the self in the context of culture. How we define the self affects how we act and function in the community. It also governs how we make decisions that ultimately define the society and events around us. The divergent view of the self between Eastern cultures and Western cultures has been demonstrated and discussed by cultural psychologists and culminated in a study by Markus and Kitayama stating that divergent construals of the self reflect cultural differences between populations.

While reading Markus & Kitayama and Steven Heine, one  wonders about the possibility (or impossibility) of convergence of these two contradicting construals of the self into one heterogeneous view.  My impression is that there is no gray area that allows one to view oneself as an independent being withing and interdependent community. Similarly, an interdependent individual could not possibly survive in a community that values individualism without alienating people. There is no continuum along a spectrum where dependence is on one end and interdependence on the other. These seem to be two distinct, non-converging entities. Heine highlights this dilemma when he discusses studies investigating self-awareness and definitions of the self in different cultures. On one end of the spectrum there are individuals who view themselves in the context of an unchanging role to perform in the community, and on the other end lies the view of oneself as an entity by itself with unchanging traits and “talents”. What is stunning, though, is the research showing that such divergent views are observed early in life, in kindergarten children. This is the extent to which culture affects and shapes us.

Who Am I?
This begs the question: are we essentially a product of where we are born, and who we interact with? To what extent can we form an identity that is “true” (if that ever exists, and what is truth at this point?)? Does that mean that our true self is nothing but a fluid concept that has no meaning outside the context of where we come from? One cannot dissociate oneself from one’s community and society, in order to understand who he/she is, except if we are to claim that cultures that foster interdependence are comprised of individuals who do not know who they really are. That is not necessarily true, though, because we all know people who cannot be disconnected from their communities for extended periods of time. They cannot abandon their view of themselves as performing a “role”, and if they try to perform similar roles in their new Western environment it ultimately alienates them from their surroundings. The claim that technology and globalization have bridged cultures is definitely true and undeniable. Yet, it is through these same technologies that individuals separated from their communities are “finding themselves” by staying connected to their original communities. This suggests that there might be a tendency in every one of us to get closer to our true selves that goes beyond the cultures and communities we surround ourselves with.

Does this mean that, to discover who you truly are, you should disconnect from your society and your surroundings and check if you yearn to your old web of family and community ties? And if you live in an individualistic society, should you move to a close-knit community and discover if your true call is in an interdependent community? These are questions that I look forward to gaining some insight into going forward.