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Walking Science and Creativity

Friday, July 20, 2018

One of the best ways to improve any creative process is to study those who have mastered their craft. We frequently turn to a favorite newsletter writer, Gregory Ciotti, for process answers, since the output of creative geniuses is frequently intimidating, even thought relating to how creative geniuses conduct their lives is often surprisingly easy.

Afternoon walks in the woods

"Beethoven kept his creative promises by strategically using his time to incubate ideas. His favorite method of thinking things through? Long, solitary walks through the forested valleys of Vienna.

"He placed great importance on this planned time for reflection and idea evaluation. It appears he wasn’t alone; notable craftsmen the world over share similar sentiments on the utility of breaking up their day with walks.

"Beethoven went for a vigorous walk after lunch, and he always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of paper in his pocket to record chance musical thoughts.

"Gustav Mahler followed much the same routine—he would take a three- or four-hour walk after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Benjamin Britten said that his afternoon walks were 'where I plan out what I’m going to write in the next period at my desk.'

"Recently, psychologists took an interesting step (or two) forward in understanding the creative benefits of walking—a Stanford study was able to show that walking helped subjects produce more novel ideas and enhanced creative thinking during the walk and immediately after, compared to sitting.

"As the title of the study so humorously points out, walking may be the missing ingredient to consistently give your new ideas some legs. There are a few reasons why walking is genuinely useful to the creative process:

1. Walking is good exercise. It has been well established that exercise is beneficial for thinking creatively. The key seems to be that exercise consistently improves one’s mood, and further studies on creativity show that working during a strong mood (especially a positive mood) will result in more novel ideas. Although walking isn’t strenuous, it is certainly better than being hunched over in a chair.

2. Allowing time to re-conceptualize. Notice how Beethoven and others used their walks as breaks. They didn’t start their day with incubation. They included it to break up an earlier work session where they had already put thought into a project. Eureka moments will remain illusive if the work isn’t done first: “In general, creativity seems to come when insight is combined with the hard work of analytical processing.”

3. A separation of stimuli. The use of stimulus control to change behavior is nothing new. But what if a strict association of external stimuli could help with creativity? Walks help create divide between a work environment and a thinking environment—engaging in both at your desk makes it a nebulous location where too many things happen at once.

"Walking separates these two states of the creative process. It allows time to expand on what you’ve already worked on, and removes you from work so you can think clearly."

Enjoy your weekend and take a long walk or two. 

Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton, MD, and David Amess 


Beethoven's daily practices have been incorporated by the Japanese. Their government supports the health benefits of a practice they call Forest Bathing as part of heir health care program.