Going out for a walk to clear your head is something a lot of us do instinctively, but scientists have revealed that there are actual biological reasons behind it.
Researchers at Stanford have uncovered the psychological benefits of walking and the implications it has on creative thinking.
The study required participants to take a creativity test (the Guildford Alternative Uses Test (GUA) for those of you playing along at home) in different settings and compared the results.
Walking increased the participants’ GAU scores by 81% when walking on a treadmill compared to being seated; and in the second experiment, they found walking outside, rather than sitting inside, doubled their ability to generate creative analogies.
While environment made a significant difference, just the act of walking was huge in itself.
Here’s where it gets a bit trickier.
Dan Schwartz, who headed up the study, said there are “very complicated” physiological changes that go down but he suggests the answer could be “that the brain is focusing on doing a task it’s quite good at, which then allows it to free up and relax.”
This, coupled with the mood-boosting effects of aerobic activity could trigger improved lateral thinking.
Physical exercise charges up the hippocampus, the part of your brain focussed on memory and learning, so when the neurons start firing – your cognitive function improves as well.
Walking could strike the perfect balance between activating this area, while not distracting the brain with exhaustion.
Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor and author who explores the science of learning, believes that your relaxed, wandering focus allows you to look at a problem in a different way.
“Part of why walking, I think, is important is it can be boring. It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analyzing and learning,” she says.
While we’re still not exactly sure of the reasons behind it, we do know that walking works.
The New Yorker wrote in a deliciously succinct snippet, “Walking organises the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.”
Walking always been the go-to for history’s finest
Before science came in to prove all this, clever buggers have been onto this phenomenon for thousands of years walking has always been a famously useful exercise for philosophers, writers, creative minds and thinkers.
Henry David Thoreau penned this quote in 1851: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Poet William Wordsworth — whose work is filled with hikes up mountains, through forests, and along public roads — was calculated as walking as many as a 289 thousand kilometres in his lifetime, more than 10km a day, starting from age five.
There’s no shortage of famous quotes that extol the virtues of walking to solve problems:
Ernest Hemingway: I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.
Gregory McNamee: Solvitur ambulando, St. Jerome was fond of saying: To solve a problem, walk around.
Friedrich Nietzsche: All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.
So next time you’re stuck with a problem, give your brain a rest – the answer might just lie in your feet.