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The Creative Benefits of Walking

From an early age Rousseau developed a passion for walking; finding delight especially from the journeys guided by chance: peripatetic randomness, or what he calls, “the pleasures of going one knows not where.” Such walks allowed his mind to wander as he penned in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, where we are introduced to 10 ‘walks’ from Rousseau’s autobiographical musings toward the end of his life. Through his walks, Rousseau delved deep into self-reflection and self-analysis, rejoicing in his freedom to “converse with [his] soul.”

“There is something about walking that animates and activates my ideas; I can hardly think when I am still; my body must move if mind is to do the same,” wrote Rousseau.

Fast forward to 2014 where French Philosopher Frederic Gros released his book A Philosophy of Walking and he also speaks of the mind-freeing quality of walking. “A long walk,” writes Gros, “allows us to commune with the sublime,” he penned. He notes the flaneur, coming from French meaning to stroll or to lounge, the casual saunter, roaming the many pathways of a city, observing, musing, pondering, and contemplative walking. This type is similar to that of Rousseau’s walking: a propellant for mind-freeing, “you’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking,” writes Gros, “but having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simply joy of existing… It is at this point where our mind is free.”

The basic premise here is that walking doesn’t require any particular conscious thought – hence its mind-freeing quality. When we walk, the mind walks also – it roams its own grey cellular paths to find ends that were known but not consciously realised: The good idea, the creative potential wedged inside the deep recesses of our mental workspace. Walk yourself, and you walk your mind along some new creative pathways.

There is scientific validity to this as well, for example in a study by Oppezzo and Schwartz, it was found that walking improved divergent thinking – the more creative form of thinking, the thought process used to generate ideas by exploring many different possible solutions, as opposed to convergent thinking, like finding the single answer for a mathematical equation. The researchers found that walking had a large effect on creativity, and their participants benefited creatively from walking compared to sitting. Whether walking to sitting, vice versa, walking indoors, outdoors on a predetermined path, or on a treadmill indoors, the participants who walked produced more creative responses to their creativity tests. In all of the tests 81 per cent, 88 per cent, and 100 per cent of participants were more creative walking than sitting. And 100 per cent of those who walked outside generated at least one novel high-quality response compared with 50 per cent of those seated inside.

It was merely the physical act of walking which saw this increase in creativity, as the authors noted, “walking has a very specific benefit — the improvement of creativity … When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.”

The first of a likely succession of studies, Oppezzo and Schwartz’s study shows that walking normally doesn’t require much conscious effort or cognitive control, so the mind is free to focus on other things. Distraction doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing when it comes to generating ideas or decision making, some studies have shown sleeping on something can assist with sudden strokes of insight, and other studies show that unconscious thinkers are the better decision makers.

In fact, in the 1960s psychologist Jerome L Singer conducted research which demonstrated that letting our minds wander is relatively crucial for a satisfying mental life. “Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event,” he discussed in a recent review.

Engaging in mundane tasks, mild exercise, or acts that require little cognitive effort are a kind of idea generator in their own rights. It is here we begin to think the ‘unthought’ — the thoughts what we didn’t realise we had because we were otherwise mentally engaged. Don’t be afraid of truly switching off because it’s not disengaging with the world, it’s re-engaging with another world altogether.

But more pertinently, the key is that physical activity, even a mild form like walking, is extremely beneficial not only for our physical health, but our mental health and creative potential. There have been a string of studies which show that exercise can nourish our memory, thinking skills, and improving brain structure — especially in the elderly. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates growth of new neurons. Remaining sedentary, on the other hand, increases the risk of heart disease (compared to those who are more active, as a 2014 study showed), and a string of other health issues. Just think: how do you feel when you’re sat for too long? Walking isn’t a random pseudo-science either as you can try it for yourself and see how your performance is different after.

“Seated at my table, and my pen in my hand and my paper in front of me, I have never been able to achieve anything. It is when I am out walking among the rocks and the woods… that I write in my head,” wrote Rousseau. His walking was a propellant for tremendous thoughts and inspired ideas, and is a simple and healthy way that we can give our ideas some legs as well as improve our own mental and physical health — go for a walk and think about it.

featured image: mika / Flickr CC

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