Stepping Up Your Creativity: Walking, Meditation, and the Creative Brain


“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Friedrich Nietzsche included this seemingly exaggerated statement among the aphorisms he created for his book “Beyond Good and Evil,” where he examined the future of philosophy. And he is certainly not the only genius to associate walking with creative inspiration.

Nikola Tesla took long daily walks in a city park and claimed to have formed his ideas fully in his mind during these strolls before committing anything to paper. Steve Jobs insisted on “walking meetings” with business associates at Apple, especially when creative problem solving was required, something that Mark Zuckerberg and many others in Silicon Valley now emulate. Dozens of famous authors — Henry David Thoreau, L.M. Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few — have said that walking is the only reliable cure to writer’s block. So many writers have been avid walkers that Merlin Coverley wrote a 265-page book called “The Art of Wandering,” discussing how literary history has been shaped by bipedal adventures.

What is it about walking that lends itself to creative brilliance? What does it do to the human brain to bring forth innovation? For one, it is good exercise, and exercise is good for the brain. In general, people who exercise regularly maintain better memory and quicker cognition throughout their lives. Yet, it seems to be more than this, since other forms of exercise rarely seem to stir the muses the way walking does.

Science has confirmed that walking does indeed awaken creative ability. In one Stanford University study, researchers found that walking boosts creative output by 60 percent. In the study, 176 adults, mainly college students, were given a variety of tasks commonly used to measure “divergent thinking,” a key element in truly creative cognition. For example, in one such task, participants were asked to list possible uses for an object. Responses were considered “novel” if no other participant thought of the idea and researchers deemed it to be a viable, realistic idea.

Interestingly, walking indoors (on a treadmill facing a blank wall) or outdoors (in a pleasant environment with plenty of natural beauty) produced the same result, suggesting that experiencing the natural environment while walking is not the inspirational trigger. Also, the creative boost continued for several minutes after the walk.

Exactly why this benefit occurs is not completely understood, but scientists have some theories. It may be that creativity is stimulated by walking because the activity requires the simultaneous use of multiple parts of the brain. The human brain, in fact, is as large as it is primarily because the act of walking in an upright position is so complicated. Large portions and disparate areas of the brain are needed just to coordinate the movements and to maintain balance while we walk.

In the journal Frontiers in Public Health, three brain researchers authored an article titled “Thinking, Walking, Talking: Integratory Motor and Cognitive Brain Function.” In this piece, the researchers speculate that complex human cognition, including our remarkable capacity for innovation, developed right along with the ability to walk. In other words, the complex brain structures needed to accommodate walking automatically allowed the potential to develop increasingly sophisticated modes of thinking. Granted, when we go for a walk, the very brain structures that allow us to walk also allow us to access our most sophisticated cognitive abilities.

Researcher Cathy Perlmutter notes that the dynamic interaction between left and right hemispheres of the neocortex may explain the inspirational benefits of walking. In general, the left hemisphere of the brain is associated with logical, linear thinking, while the right is associated with creativity and intuition, although both sides are used to some degree on any kind of task.

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