Does walking help to get our most creative ideas?

It’s something you can maybe recognize from your own life, but for sure from some movies: when people are looking for a solution, they e.g. start walking circles in their room. Now there is good news for if you are really lazy: walking does work, but even small movements while sitting improve creativity. The researchers conducted 3 experiments, but do note that these experiments were rather small.

From the press release:

Movement helps us to think creatively. This insight is over 2000 years old — and already known to the philosophers in ancient Greece.

However, what is the connection between movement and cognition from a scientific point of view? What happens in the brain when we walk? Are people who rarely move less creative?

“Our research shows that it is not movement per se that helps us to think more flexibly,” says neuroscientist Dr Barbara Händel from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany. Instead, the freedom to make self-determined movements is responsible for it.

Accordingly, even small movements while sitting can have the same positive effects on creative thinking. However, the researcher does not derive any concrete movement suggestions from her work: “The important thing is the freedom to move without external constraints.”

Don’t stare at small screens for too long

It is important, she says, that movement is not suppressed or forced into regular patterns. “Unfortunately, this happens when people focus for example on a small screen,” explains the JMU researcher.

The increased use of mobile phones and similar devices — also in the field of education at the time of the Corona pandemic — could therefore have a negative effect on cognitive processes such as creativity.

The experiments that Barbara Händel and her doctoral student Supriya Murali conducted are described in detail in a recent publication in the journal Psychological Research.

Background

How do people perceive their environment? What effect do sensory stimuli have in the peripheral nervous system and what in the brain? What influence do body movements have on perception of sensory input? Researchers like Barbara Händel are interested in such questions for many reasons. In the long term, their findings could contribute to a better understanding of diseases that affect body movements as well as cognitive processes.

Abstract of the study:

Creativity, specifically divergent thinking, has been shown to benefit from unrestrained walking. Despite these findings, it is not clear if it is the lack of restriction that leads to the improvement. Our goal was to explore the effects of motor restrictions on divergent thinking for different movement states. In addition, we assessed whether spontaneous eye blinks, which are linked to motor execution, also predict performance. In experiment 1, we compared the performance in Guilford’s alternate uses task (AUT) during walking vs. sitting, and analysed eye blink rates during both conditions. We found that AUT scores were higher during walking than sitting. Albeit eye blinks differed significantly between movement conditions (walking vs. sitting) and task phase (baseline vs. thinking vs. responding), they did not correlate with task performance. In experiment 2 and 3, participants either walked freely or in a restricted path, or sat freely or fixated on a screen. When the factor restriction was explicitly modulated, the effect of walking was reduced, while restriction showed a significant influence on the fluency scores. Importantly, we found a significant correlation between the rate of eye blinks and creativity scores between subjects, depending on the restriction condition. Our study shows a movement state-independent effect of restriction on divergent thinking. In other words, similar to unrestrained walking, unrestrained sitting also improves divergent thinking. Importantly, we discuss a mechanistic explanation of the effect of restriction on divergent thinking based on the increased size of the focus of attention and the consequent bias towards flexibility.

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