In a knowledge economy, creativity is key. For employees it may represent the difference between rising at work or losing a job; for entrepreneurs the gap between building – or losing – a company. So how to increase it?
One quick answer – use your body physically. In simple terms, take a hike. Moving about increases the information flow. It increases our ability to regenerate – and create.
Humans are not just walking “machines” – we are creative walking beings. And the pleasures and creativity of the most basic physical activities link us pleasantly with much of the animal world.
Walking as Creative Goad
Research on walking goes back a long piece. A well known paper by Steinberg and others in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 1997 argued walking/exercise increased creativity – at least as verified by “creativity” tests demonstrating openness to new ideas and the ability to produce some. Though mood increased with exercise, the authors felt that exercise independently increased creativity.
A new paper by Opezzo et al. (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition) has taken a different tack. They looked at people working out on a treadmill.
And they also took the treadmill outside.
The creativity test used by Opezzo and co-workers won’t tell you when you’ve produced great mental breakthroughs, Einsteinian leaps into the beyond.
But they may relate to the ability to solve problems – basic stuff that hits us every day.
Walking on an indoors treadmill “improved” scores of 81% of the people who moved on it. Tests of “convergent” thinking – the stuff so beloved of SAT preparers and other testing drills used to stratify talent internationally – moved up among only 23% of participants.
Putting the treadmill outside did not seem to increase “creativity” scores beyond what was achieved walking inside. However, elements of “blue sky” thinking – more varied creative responses – did go up as people labored out of the building.
Not that most people who walk outside will continue moving in the same space – or on an outdoor treadmill. Moving through different environments gives the brain and body much more a workout than simple treadmilling. Many studies point to different kinds of learning – and ability – when people are placed in differing environments.
What does seem true is that humans are built to move. People think better when they are tested immediately after walking. And in this study, the positive effects lasted for hours and hours.
Perhaps we should ask our friends the mice.
Treadmills and Running Wheels
Mice and rats have trekked many billions of miles in research laboratories over the last century.
But did they enjoy any of it?
A group of researchers wondered about that. One was intrigued by a passage in the research notebooks of Konrad Lorenz, a founder of ethology – the study of animal behavior.
In a single sentence Lorenz noted that some of his mice seemed to take on the running wheels all by themselves.
The researchers tested this by putting their mice out in the wild – a wild equipped with running wheels.
Lots of the mice couldn’t help themselves. They went up and onto the running wheels. They ran and ran and ran.
Just like kids run and run. Or dogs scamper across the landscape.
To outsiders – humans – it looked like play. Lots of animals appear to enjoy scampering around just for the fun of it – mice, kids, dogs, birds.
And play may aid creativity.
What Happens When Walking
Walking appears automatic to people. I just start moving, and I move. Arthritis may slow me down, but people “know” how to walk.
Yet walking takes a lot of early training. And it involves a lot more than legs and arms.
To move through the environment requires coordination of all senses, dozens of complex muscles and joints, plus great understanding of how everything fits – and where everything is going – in three dimensional space.
On a treadmill, it requires coordinating your “unthinking” movements with that of an inexorable machine. In the natural environment, it requires avoiding innumerable obstacles and in many present contexts, talking on a cell phone while staying away – or better coordinating – one’s actions with cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians.
But that’s not even half of it. Moving through an environment means meeting all that the environment throws up to the brain, immune system, sinew and tissue:
Thousands of potentially novel chemicals
Thousands of different forms of bacteria
Thousands of varied viruses
When you take a hike, your immune system goes into hyderdrive to protect and support you.
And all that provides more than increased muscle movement and blood flow. It provides a massive dose of new information for the brain and body.
For information processing is what we, and other living beings, do.
Novelty and Creativity
Humans love play. So does much of the animal community, particularly the one we’ve domesticated over the past tens of thousands of years.
Play engages novelty.
And new information leads to new ideas. Importantly, not all this information – or even very much of it – need be conscious to us.
We’re always thinking, even if we don’t think we’re thinking.
In sleep, we rewire much of the brain and body. But we do interesting things during wakefulness, too. Our bodies recreate everything most of the time – on the fly.
And we do it more creatively when more information pours in.
Information can take many forms. It can be the sensory overload of a science fiction movie, the anguished sorrow of a late Beethoven quartet, the intense colors bursting by when we cruise a supermarket isle.
The body lives and dies by information.
And walking provides a remarkably rich trove of new information and stimulation. By itself, whether in a garden or a gorge or a great metropolis, walking can be play – simple fun.
So when you’re stuck on a problem, you don’t have to just lie there.
Start moving. You can even move in place. But it will probably be more entertaining – and give you more “blue sky” ideas – if you get outside.
And just walk. Stroll. Saunter. March.
But bring a notebook. And plenty of sunscreen.
Creativity needs all kinds of support.
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