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Keep Moving

Tracking down How and Why Physical Activity Boosts Creative Thinking

The Official White House Photostream via Wikimedia Commons

"Trying out different chairs in the Oval Office."

Source: The Official White House Photostream via Wikimedia Commons

Asked to conjure up a mental image of someone who is thinking, many of us will envision a seated figure. Perhaps we imagine something like Auguste Rodin’s famous statue of “The Thinker” –– he leans over, resting his chin on his hand, still, silently lost in thought.

But opposing this sedentary image there may be other images or recollections that come to mind instead. Prompted by our associations, we may bring to mind, instead, the prodigious walking habits of such diverse thinker/creators as Charles Darwin, Ludwig van Beethoven, or more recently, the intense walking-meetings of the late CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs.

These “ambulatory” images of the process of thinking fit more closely with the findings from a series of experiments published in 2014 by researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University. Aptly titled “Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking” these researchers found that asking student participants to walk –– even if on an indoor treadmill –– rather than sit, substantially bolstered the students’ imaginative reach. Students who walked rather than sat generated more creative (novel and appropriate) responses on a divergent thinking test that asks participants to come up with nonstandard uses for common objects such as a button, or a paper-clip.

The creativity-boosting benefits of walking were also observed for walking outdoors, and were large. Participants who were asked to engage in two successive phases of walking outdoors (“walk-walk” participants) generated nearly twice as many creative responses as did participants who took part in two successive phases of sitting, only moving from one room to a second room between the phases (“sit-sit” participants). Equally important, the benefits of an earlier phase of walking seemed to persist across time. Students who first walked and then sat (“walk-sit” participants) were significantly more creative during the second (sit) phase than participants in the consistently seated (sit-sit) group.

These outcomes are highly promising and suggest that walking itself may bolster our imaginative thinking, at least on one type of divergent thinking task. But we might ask: Was it necessarily walking, per se, that was beneficial? Might other forms of “non-sitting” likewise be helpful? What about simply standing, with its associated increase of tiny micro-movements? And what if the creative task is one that requires not only individual responding but also the combined endeavors of a small team of people collaboratively working together on a creative project?

These were some of the questions tackled in a recent study by researchers Andrew Knight and Markus Baer of Washington University in St. Louis. To set the scene, let’s walk through what might have happened to one of their participants.

Soon after arriving at the experimental session, you are joined by three other students, also apparently taking part in the study. After giving your informed consent, you are asked to place a wireless sensor around your wrist. The research assistant explains that the sensor will sample and record your electrodermal activity throughout the experiment. She asks you to complete a brief survey and then explains that you will be asked to work together, in a room down the hall, to creatively develop a new student recruitment video for the university. You’ll have 30 minutes to develop ideas for the video, after which a video-technician will come by to help with the actual recording. She also explains that your group interactions during the 30 minutes will be videotaped.

The research assistant accompanies you down the hallway, bringing you to a small (13.5 x 8.5 foot) conference room. The room has a whiteboard, two easels with notepads and markers, and a 4x3 foot table and 5 chairs. Scattered on the table are several brochures about the university. Reminding you that you’ll have 30 minutes to develop your creative video ideas, she leaves your newly formed team to get to work. You each take a seat at the table and begin to talk and sketch out ideas.

Now suppose that everything happens just as before (answering the survey questions, donning the wearable sensor, instructions for developing the recruitment video, etc.). But when you walk into the small conference room, the room looks exactly the same but with one difference –– the table has no chairs. How would the absence of chairs affect the creative performance of a group? Or how the student team members interact and work with one another?

Looking at the performance of a total of 54 such student teams, each with 3–5 students, Knight and Baer found that whether or not the team worked in a room with chairs did not directly influence the team’s creativity. But it did impact their creativity indirectly.

Teams that worked in chair-less rooms interacted differently. Three raters watched the videotapes of the teams. They coded, on a minute-by-minute basis, how attentive to one another the team members were, and whether they were building off of one another’s ideas. The no-chair teams showed greater idea elaboration.

But how did that happen? This greater idea elaboration in the no-chair teams was, in turn, partially fueled by team members moving about more, leading to higher physiological arousal (as shown by readings from the wrist sensors). The no-chair teams’ enhanced idea elaboration was also fueled by a more shared idea space –– what we, in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change, call “idea landscapes.” The no-chair teams were less concerned about individual ownership of their ideas: good ideas were good ideas.

What do these two research studies together tell us?

We see that what might seem like minor or subtle changes in our physical worlds shape how we think, and how we can create. We see that our ability for creativity is not fixed, but fluctuates over time and across circumstances. Our past activities (whether we earlier were sitting or walking) often carry forward into the future, boosting or impeding our flexibility of thinking.

The studies prompt us to ask:

  • Should we have more walking meetings? If so, for what sorts of projects? For how long? With how many people?
  • How could our thinking/working spaces be made more creativity-friendly? What if, rather than removing the chairs from a meeting room, we removed only the table?
  • Should we have different “chairs” for different phases of our creative and problem-solving processes?
  • What are other ways we could be more creative about flexibly configuring and reconfiguring our spaces for thinking and making?