Teaching About Practical Steps to Creativity

Walking can spur creativity, a practical practice and message for students

Posted May 07, 2014

One of the great things about teaching psychology is that many research findings have practical applications for daily life. It’s the rare psychology class that doesn’t disclose myriad results that can be used or adapted for everyday use. Courses concerning cognition, for example, disclose a great deal about learning and memory, and most also provide students with insights on how best to study (or what approaches to studying don’t work so well). Psychology of adjustment courses focus on just that—how do we adjust to the vagaries of life, from dealing with stress and ways of coping to making and retaining friends and romantic attachments. Introductory psychology, too, is chock full of practical insights, from issues of thought suppression (just try not to think of a Wegnerian white bear) to theories about why we dream and the constructive and necessary maintenance processes that occur when we are in never-nervous land each night.

In a past entry, I wrote about the cognitively beneficial side of spending time out of doors communing with nature. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) posits that green and leafy spaces have a rejuvenating quality, one that allows us to recharge our cognitive skills so that we can later better focus our attention on things we encounter. What could be more practical or easily practiced than trying to expose ourselves to green spaces each day? Even a brief visit to a park or tree-lined street can be beneficial (in contrast to busy urban scenes—think of a typical and noisy downtown scene in a busy city—that taxes our senses and leaves us less mentally agile). Even just looking at photos or images of the great outdoors can have a modest but measurable effect on our cognition.

This week I read about an even simpler but completely practical act most of us can perform that pays great dividends: taking a walk. Two researchers in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education would frequently take a walk together in order to talk about possible research ideas. Breaking set—that is, getting out of a stationary setting (sitting at a desk, looking at computer screen) proved to be beneficial for sharing and generating new ideas. These researchers noticed—as you may have from time to time—that such locomotion was linked with a spark in their creative thinking.

To explore the connection between walking and creativity, the researchers—Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz—conducted a simple experiment. Undergraduates were recruited and given some standard creativity tasks (e.g., coming up with alternative uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a paperclip). After this initial assessment, the same students began to walk on a treadmill facing a blank wall (the setting for this research was chosen especially for its blandness, a way to rule out competing explanations for any observed effects and to emphasize the influence, if any, of mere walking).

The students walked at their own self-selected and normal paces. While doing so, they repeated the creativity tests (which ran about eight minutes). Virtually all the students were found to come up with about 60 percent more novel and viable uses for the everyday objects than was true during the first creativity assessment. Here’s the real kicker: Additional research found that the benefits of just walking linger a bit—we might not all be able to do creative work while walking or taking a spin on the treadmill, but perhaps we can do so after we’ve finished our brief trips.

So, as spring turns to summer, take some walks at opportune moments in order to jump start your creativity. Doing so outdoors might offer twin benefits—creative thought associated with walking and the restorative power of green spaces. You might assume that walking in green spaces leads to even more creativity than just walking on, say, a treadmill (remember the ART argument)—but that turns out not to be the case. Walking outdoors may often be more pleasant than running on a treadmill but it does not appear to offer any additional level of creative problem solving—it’s the walking that matters, not the scene or the green, to creativity. That being said, we can still enjoy our surroundings and their aesthetic qualities, if any, independent of the impact on creativity (I’d rather look at trees and lawns than walls, wouldn’t you?).

So, if the weather is too hot or too foul (a late spring or early summer downpour) then even a walk on a treadmill can boost your creativity. And one more thing: Don’t overlook the fact that the exercise inherent in walking has healthy side benefits.

Practical observations like these are easy to share with students, who in turn can practice them in their daily lives.