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 predicts 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.

Last year, 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. Also, the hemispheres control opposite sides of the body — the left hemisphere controlling the right side of the body, and the right controlling the left. It could be, then, that walking, with its continuous involvement of left and right sides of the body as we shift from one foot to the next with each step, accommodates greater communication between the hemispheres in the process of coordinating those movements. This may further explain why writers are especially fond of walking, since creative writing requires both logical left-hemisphere aspects of the brain (language-recall and grammatical-syntactical construction) and right-brain creative functions (original insight and free association of ideas).

Walking may also offer people something that is known to be an important part of the creative process — cognitive pause. Neurologist Vinod Deshmukh asserts that new insights come to us when we “pause and unload” our minds. This process is necessary for creative thinking since otherwise we would be stuck forever in the same preconceptions and patterns of thinking. What is required for us to pause and unload? A kind of relaxation of the mind, a “letting go” of the problem at hand. That’s why creative inspiration often comes at the oddest times — in the shower or right after waking up from a nap. Walking may offer just that kind of cognitive pause — a chance to relax the mind and empty it of old ideas that just aren’t working.

Walking, in this regard, is similar to another activity that is also known to enhance creativity — meditation. Meditation likely boosts creativity because it encourages practitioners to “empty the mind,” a task not unlike the cognitive pause that Deshmukh claims is necessary for new insights.

Walking may be naturally meditative for a couple of reasons. First, it is relaxing — it releases tension from the muscles of the body through light exercise and distracts the mind from its own busyness. Secondly, it is a rhythmic activity. Each step and swing of the arms creates a distinct cadence. Rhythm is known to lower brainwave frequency, as studies of the therapeutic value of drumming have confirmed. This, again, is an effect almost identical to meditation. The lowest brainwave frequency possible while still remaining conscious is experienced right before sleep and while waking up — alpha waves. Keeping the brain in an alpha-brainwave state appears to be the best state for creative thought.

Walking-meditation practices, such as those taught by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, seek to increase practitioners’ level of mindfulness and awareness as they walk. Research about walking meditation is limited at this point, but one study on diabetes patients found that walking provided stress-reducing results comparable to both light exercise and regular meditation practice. It stands to reason that the practice of walking meditation might also enhance one’s creative abilities, since it emphasizes and enhances the mind-calming benefits of both walking and meditation.

Hippocrates once wrote, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” That is certainly true physically, and it seems to be the best medicine for our creative minds, too. The next time you need a creative solution to a problem you feel stuck in, don’t sit there obsessing about it — let it go and take a hike.

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