Out of Ideas? Take a Walk! Stimulate Your Creativity with a Stroll

While you're at it, take a notebook and pencil!

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

The next time you’re feeling stuck, go for a walk. Professor Vishton explains why Darwin and other great thinkers used walking to stimulate creativity and why you should, too.

Woman walking through park during Fall season
Research studies have verified what many famous thinkers already knew, walking boosts creativity and problem-solving. Photo by S.Borisov / Shutterstock

Walking and Creativity

Marily Oppezzo and her colleagues have explored the connection between walking and creativity with the Alternate-Uses Test. In this test, participants are given four minutes to come up with as many different uses as they can for a common object. 

Think of as many uses as you can for a brick. You can use it as a doorstop, a paperweight; you can stand on it to reach up a little higher than you normally can.

Additionally, you can use it as a weapon, to break a window, or as an inexpensive dumbbell for weight training. Some people get really creative; one participant suggested using a brick as a pretend coffin for a Barbie doll funeral.

This test would be performed for several minutes with a list of several additional objects: a shoe, a paperclip, and maybe a bucket. This isn’t the same as inventing a new device or producing a work of art, but it taps a mental resource that is central to those real-world creative processes.

Oppezzo’s group had their participants complete the Remote Associates Test (RAT) (finding a word that forms an association with three given words) and this alternative uses test while participating in one of several experimental conditions. Some participants sat in a chair and completed the tests. 

Others stood up. Some went for a walk while completing the task; some walked inside, some outside. Some were pushed in a wheelchair for that trip around the inside or outside space. Note that these last two conditions are clever. 

If a boost in creativity was found, it might not be the walking that mattered, but the stimulation of the changing surroundings that boosted the creativity. The wheelchair conditions tested for that.

Walking While Thinking

In summary, all of these changes significantly boosted the creativity of the study participants. Walking helped a lot, so did going for a ride in a wheelchair; but walking boosted performance significantly more. Walking outside was best for creativity, but even walking on a treadmill was better than not walking.

Many great thinkers have been regular walkers. Charles Dickens claimed that he walked about 30 miles per day while thinking about his writing. Charles Darwin, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill—a lot of great thinkers have spoken and written about the mental benefits of walking. 

Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, once wrote that, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” a tradition that goes all the way back to ancient Greece and the so-called Peripatetic school—literally the walking school, founded by the followers of Aristotle.

The recent research provides solid evidence for this belief. If you want to be a more creative thinker, take your thoughts—and yourself—out for a stroll. 

Write It Down

While you’re on that stroll, carry a pocket notepad and a pencil. The best creative thinkers tend to be people who engage in a wide variety of tasks. 

The evidence here is correlational in nature. In typical studies, researchers have surveyed participants about the variety of activities that they pursue. 

The participants then complete tasks like the RAT and the Alternative-Uses Test. In general, the more varied the person’s typical activities are, the more creative they tend to score on those tests of creative thinking.

From this research, we can reasonably conclude that if you feel stuck with a particular problem and want to develop more creative solutions, trying something new can help. Doing so can stimulate your brain in novel ways. 

Indeed, this is probably the reason that going for a walk outside, or even being pushed in a wheelchair outside, boosts creative thinking. As your senses and body are stimulated with a wide variety of different inputs, the internal state of your brain’s activation will tend to vary more as well. 

Finding a creative connection between two pieces of information will only happen if the brain circuits that encode those two pieces of information are active at the same time, or at least nearly the same time. If you increase the variety of ways in which your brain is stimulated, this increases the chance of these unusual co-activations taking place.

A consequence of this is that your best ideas will not necessarily occur while you’re sitting at your desk or even when you’re working on a particular challenge. If it’s a truly fantastic insight, it’ll be hard to forget, but it might not always be clear that it’s a great idea. By jotting a note when the idea occurs, you’ll greatly increase the chances that you’ll remember it and be able to use it later.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 323 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.