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A Walk in the Park

Walking in nature. (iStock)
Kierkegaard took long walks in the afternoon. Dickens once hoofed it 30 miles from London to his country home. Diogenes’ advice was said to be “solvitur ambulando”—it is solved by walking around. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit unpacks the appeal of perambulation: “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”

That sounds nice. But is there really a mind-foot connection?

Maybe so. In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers at Stanford University asked 48 undergraduate psychology students to take Guilford’s Alternative Uses test, which has been around since the 1960s and is designed to measure creative thinking. The test asks you to name alternate uses for common objects like candles (hood ornament) and rubber bands (in-office projectile). Each student first took the test seated at a desk, then took it again while walking on a treadmill.

The subjects had more answers—and their answers were more creative—when they were on the treadmill. And not just a little more creative: The average improvement was 60 percent. Interestingly, the effect doesn’t vanish right away. In another experiment, the researchers had subjects walk on a treadmill and then sit down. They were slightly less creative post-treadmill, but still more creative than were subjects who did nothing but sit. The researchers also sent the subjects outside and found that walking around a busy campus produced levels of creativity similar to walking on a treadmill.

That finding suggests that it’s the very act of walking, not where you walk, that makes the difference. But there’s growing evidence that being in nature has a cognitive upside. In a 2008 paper, published in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor had undergraduates take a nearly hourlong walk in an arboretum. The subjects carried GPS units so their progress could be tracked. When they returned, researchers assessed their mood and had them complete a backward-digit-span test, in which they were shown a series of numbers and then asked to recall them in reverse, a test designed to measure working memory.

The subjects were in a better mood after the walk, naturally. They were also better at the backward-digit test.

But maybe it was simply the exercise rather than the environment that did the trick. So the researchers tried a second experiment. This time, rather than having the subjects walk in an arboretum, the researchers showed them either photographs of nature scenes or photographs of urban areas. Those who saw the nature scenes were in a better mood, did better on the backward-digit test, and scored higher on the Attention Network Test, which is sometimes used to diagnose ADHD.

So what would happen if you measured creativity during a stroll through the forest? The lead author of the new creativity-walking study, Stanford’s Marily Oppezzo, writes in an email that it would be “interesting to see if more natural settings amplify the effect or not. We had thought of varying the levels of outdoor stimulation as well as levels of natural presence (maybe empty parking lot vs. visually rich park with lots of green).” Oppezzo says she and her colleagues “definitely plan to run more studies on walking!”

A lot of us spend our days inside, seated in front of computers, trying to come up with ideas. When we’re at our desks, we’re working; when we’re outside walking, we’re taking a break. Here’s an idea: Maybe it’s the other way around.

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