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Pacing May Enhance Creative Thinking

Update Date: Apr 24, 2014 02:21 PM EDT

Pacing may boost creativity, a new study suggests. New findings reveal that thoughts flowed more smoothly when people walked as opposed to sitting down.

"Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking," lead researcher Marily Oppezzo, PhD, of Santa Clara University said in a news release. "With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why."

The latest study involved 176 people who were mostly college students. Researchers found that participants who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests. However, sitters were better than walkers in terms of solving problems with a single answer.

"Asking someone to take a 30-minute run to improve creativity at work would be an unpopular prescription for many people," co-researcher Daniel L. Schwartz said in a news release. "We wanted to see if a simple walk might lead to more free-flowing thoughts and more creativity."

The study consisted of two experiments. Each experiment had 48 participants. In the first study, each student sat alone in a small room at a desk facing a blank wall. Participants were asked to come up with alternative ways to use objects researchers named. For instance a person might say "doorknob" or "dollhouse" for the word "button". Researchers also had participants take a word association task with 15 three-word groups, such as "cottage-Swiss-cake," for which the correct answer is "cheese." Participants repeated both tasks with different sets of words first while sitting and then while walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall in the same room.

In the second experiment, some participants sat for two different sets of the tests, some walked during two sets of the test and some walked and then sat for the tests.

"This confirmed that the effect of walking during the second test set was not due to practice," Oppezzo said. "Participants came up with fewer novel ideas when they sat for the second test set after walking during the first. However, they did perform better than the participants who sat for both sets of tests, so there was a residual effect of walking on creativity when people sat down afterward. Walking before a meeting that requires innovation may still be nearly as useful as walking during the meeting."

While more research is needed to determine how walking improves creativity, researchers believe that the physical act of walking may alter cognitive control of imagination.

"Incorporating physical activity into our lives is not only beneficial for our hearts but our brains as well. This research suggests an easy and productive way to weave it into certain work activities," Oppezzo said.

The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

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