Does walking really improve your creativity?

​"All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking." Nietzsche

So observed eminent philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his book 'Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophise with a Hammer'. Whilst Nietzsche's comments were recorded more than 125 years ago, they've been backed up much more recently by researchers from America's Stanford University in an article published in the 'Journal of Experimental Psychology'.

When comparing walking with sitting, the group found the former to boost creative output by up to 60 per cent. This, analysts have claimed, is also the reason why technology progressors Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg regularly held meetings on foot.

So why are so many people of the view that walking boosts creativity, and what evidence is there to prove that the views of both Friedrich Nietzsche and Stanford researchers are right?

Activity versus environment

Much of the uncertainty about walking's creative benefit has been wrapped up in the debate over activity versus environment. Put another way, is it the physical act of walking which boosts creativity, or the scenery one can enjoy while doing so. After all, you could argue that more writers, artists and philosophers have spoken of the ways in which the British countryside gave them flashes of inspiration, more so than simple walking.

In light of this, the team at Stanford University sought to find out just what provides the creative spark; the physical act of walking, the scenery a person can enjoy or a combination of the two. For this, the team separated walking participants into two groups, those who did so inside and those who took to the great outdoors. Perhaps surprisingly, all walkers reported increased levels of creative output, regardless of whether they were inside or out.

Similarly, researchers also used a group of test subjects being pushed around outside on a wheelchair. This would present them with results for a group that was not walking but were still outdoors and enjoying a similar visual movement to walking. Whilst those who were sitting in moving wheelchairs outdoors scored much higher in the creative tests than those sat indoors, they couldn't quite reach the levels achieved by those who were walking, regardless of whether they were inside or out - so it's not simply being outside that helps creativity, it's walking outside.

​Testing creativity

One potential pitfall with studies such as these can come when trying to test - and therefore quantify - creativity. After all, it's arguably impossible to put a numeric value on a person's creativity, or value one person's output as being of greater worth than another. To combat this, the Stanford team used a number of different tests to ascertain levels of creative output.

The first involved so-called 'divergent thinking', which involves getting participants to think of as many different uses for an item as they can. Each response was then tested for accuracy (to root out responses such as using a bicycle tyre as an engagement ring), then marked depending on how rarely it was used. Respondents were awarded top marks if they came up with a valid, unique suggestion.

A second test saw participants being asked to come up with complex analogies for simple prompts. An example given by the university as a good result would be comparing 'a robbed safe' with 'a soldier suffering from PTSD', as this invokes a sense of loss, dysfunction or violation. Responding with 'an empty wallet', however, would be deemed less creative as it's too similar to the prompt.

​Idea generation

Nietzsche's comment proved particularly accurate when considering the tests undertaken on creative thinking while walking. Most of the aforementioned research took into account the ability to perform creative tasks after going out for a walk. Researchers, however, also wanted to measure peoples' creative reasoning when actually undertaking a walk. For this, word association games were played, where participants were given three seemingly disparate words and asked to find the common denominator (such as the link between ice, hand and cheese being cream).

Here, the participants who were out walking scored lower than those sat indoors, prompting the researchers to note that walking does indeed boost idea generation, but may not be so good for 'convergent', focused thinking. Or, as Nietzsche put it, "all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking."

But why?

This research - as well as the nifty soundbites or anecdotal quotes that have been around for hundreds of years - suggests that the act of walking itself, not just what you enjoy along the way, is what's beneficial. The science to back this up is long established and trusted.

Exercise, of course, gets the heart pumping faster, thus circulating more blood to the brain. This is even true on small ambles - not just powerful sprints. All this extra oxygen-rich blood getting to the brain allows it to perform certain tests much better, especially those concerned with memory and attention.

More recent research showed that walking actually encourages the brain to create new connections between cells and helps transmit messages between them much more effectively. Furthermore, it can reduce the speed of tissue degradation and even enlarge the hippocampus, which is responsible for spatial navigation and converting information from the short-term to the long-term memory.

When it comes to a boost in creativity, though, researchers said there might be something else at play. They argued that walking distracts the brain's prefrontal cortex, as it's this which is responsible for decision making and rule learning - among other things. With the prefrontal cortex otherwise occupied, it enables left-field, alternative suggestions to sneak in where they may otherwise have been rooted out.

Regardless of the reasons why or the tests undertaken to obtain proof, it seems that walking has long been known to boost creative thinking - not to mention memory capacity and attention levels. As American polymath Henry David Thoreau noted in his journals: "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow."