How Walking Fosters Creativity: Stanford Researchers Confirm What Philosophers and Writers Have Always Known

Walking

Image via Diego Sevilla Ruiz

A certain Zen proverb goes something like this: “A five year old can understand it, but an 80 year old cannot do it.” The subject of this riddle-like saying has been described as “mindfulness”—or being absorbed in the moment, free from routine mental habits. In many Eastern meditative traditions, one can achieve such a state by walking just as well as by sitting still—and many a poet and teacher has preferred the ambulatory method.

This is equally so in the West, where we have an entire school of ancient philosophy—the “peripatetic“—that derives from Aristotle and his contemporaries’ penchant for doing their best work while in leisurely motion. Friedrich Nietzsche, an almost fanatical walker, once wrote, “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Nietzsche’s mountain walks were athletic, but walking—Frédéric Gros maintains in his A Philosophy of Walking—is not a sport; it is “the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.”

Gros discusses the centrality of walking in the lives of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant, Rousseau, and Thoreau. Likewise, Rebecca Solnit has profiled the essential walks of literary figures such as William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Gary Snyder in her book Wanderlust, which argues for the necessity of walking in our own age, when doing so is almost entirely unnecessary most of the time. As great walkers of the past and present have made abundantly clear—anecdotally at least—we observe a significant link between walking and creative thinking.

More generally, writes Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker, “the way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa.” Applying modern research methods to ancient wisdom has allowed psychologists to quantify the ways in which this happens, and to begin to explain the reasons why. Jabr summarizes the experiments of two Stanford walking researchers, Marily Oppezzo and her mentor Daniel Schwartz, who found that almost two hundred students tested showed markedly heightened creative abilities while walking. Walking, Jabr writes in poetic terms, works by “setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought.” (Hear Dr. Oppezzo discuss her study in a Minnesota public radio interview above.)

Oppezzo and Schwartz speculate that “future studies would likely determine a complex pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the cognitive control of imagination.” They recognize that this discovery must also account for such variables as when one walks, and—as so many notable walkers have stressed—where. Researchers at the University of Michigan have approached the where question in a paper titled “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature” that documents a study in which, writes Jabr, “students who ambled through an arboretum improved their performance on a memory test more than students who walked along city streets.”

One wonders what James Joyce—whose Ulysses is built almost entirely on a scaffolding of walks around Dublin—would make of this. Or Walter Benjamin, whose concept of the flâneur, an archetypal urban wanderer, derives directly from the insights of that most imaginative decadent poet, Charles Baudelaire. Classical walkers, Romantic walkers, Modernist walkers—all recognized the creative importance of this simple movement in time and space, one we work so hard to master in our first years, and sometimes lose in later life if we acquire it. Going for a walk, contemporary research confirms—a mundane activity far too easily taken for granted—may be one of the most salutary means of achieving states of enlightenment, literary, philosophical, or otherwise, whether we roam through ancient forests, over the Alps, or to the corner store.

via The New Yorker/Stanford News

Related Content:

Why You Do Your Best Thinking In The Shower: Creativity & the “Incubation Period”

The Psychology of Messiness & Creativity: Research Shows How a Messy Desk and Creative Work Go Hand in Hand

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Barb Drummond says:

    A good post, but urban walking is a far different past time to being out in the countryside. The latter inspires people with a love of nature, I can’t see a lot of poetry coming from urban walking. Also, the earth is much more gentle on your feet, and the variety of what is underfoot is more healthy than the harsh surfaces of out cities.

  • A says:

    I am in the midst of depression right now and walking my neighborhood is grounding me. I am mother of four and currently on summer break and it has been difficult readjusting. Walking has done much to help clear my mind and find space to breath.

    I am walking in a urban location. A location that some would be fearful to walk late at night (although there really is no reason). My greatest threats tonight were one lone shrunk, slick slate sidewalk and a well camouflage cat!

  • Swany says:

    Your mention of Nietzsche reminded me of his aphorism, “In the mountains the shortest distance is from peak to peak; but for that you must have long legs.”

  • Gregory Wonderwheel says:

    Great blog on walking. But…. the story of the so-called Zen proverb is a little screwed up. It was not a story about “mindfulness.” If you hear a stor about “mindfulness” you can be pretty sure it didn’t come from the Zen tradition. The line comes from a Zen koan about the meaning of Buddhism and what it means to live a Buddhist life.
    Here’s the koan:

    THE STORY OF “BIRD’S NEST” ROSHI

    The old teacher “Bird’s Nest” got his name because he often meditated sitting in a tree in a makeshift nest.
    One day Su Shih, who was both a government official and an eminent poet, paid him a visit, looked up at him high in the tree, and exclaimed, “What a dangerous seat you have up there!”
    Bird’s Nest Roshi replied, “Yours is more dangerous than mine.”
    The visitor said, “I am the governor of this province, and I don’t see what danger there is in that.”
    Bird’s Nest responded, “Then, sir, you don’t know yourself very well. When passions burn and the mind is unsteady, this is the greatest danger.”
    The governor then asked, “What is the teaching of Buddhism?”
    Bird’s Nest Roshi recited a verse from the Dhammapada:

    “Do no wrong.
    “Do all good.
    “Keep the mind clear.
    “This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.”

    When the governor heard this, he was not impressed. “Any three-year-old child knows that.”
    Bird’s Nest said, “Any three-year-old child may know it, but even an eighty-year-old cannot do it.”

  • Gregory Wonderwheel says:

    On the question of sitting meditation verses walking meditation, the problem is not in the walking or sitting itself, but in the mind’s habitual proclivities while walking or sitting.

    When doing sitting meditation, one either sits facing a wall or with eyes at a 45 degree angle facing the floor. The eyes do not wander about looking at the environment. This is the essential training of seeing and seeing consciousness that is called turning about from the outflows.

    The outflows are our usual way of encountering the world as if it is only an external objective separate reality. It is very difficult to turn around the light of awareness to see its own source when our attention is distracted by the external environment and we are judging or evaluating everything we see as either beautiful or ugly, safe or scary, etc.

    Walking meditation is equal to sitting meditation only if there is awareness and recognition that the walking can only be called meditation if it is used as a method to turn around from the usual outflows in relation to an objective environment to realize the source of awareness itself. This means, the walking meditator is not turning left and right to be amazed and intoxicated by the natural views, but is walking with a gaze looking just enough ahead to not trip on anything and to receive the sounds of the world by just hearing without feeling one has to turn to them or chase after them by objectifying them and identifying each sound.

    When the mind’s outflowing is sufficiently turned around, then the sounds and sights of the world are no longer perceived as part of an external landscape and are realized as the sights and sounds of one’s own mind manifesting and both self and environment are indistinguishable. At this point of absolute unification any particular sight or sound, such as the sight of blossoms or the sound of the stream, may shatter the clear mirror of the mind, and the whole world will reappear, but now not as object, and instead as the rain drops of one’s own true nature.

  • Will says:

    The Zen proverb mentoned was not originally about mindfulness per se, but about ethics. It was an answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of the Buddhist teaching the response was ‘do what is good. Don’t do what is evil’. The inquirer said ‘even a child of three could understand that!’ – hence the zen proverb. FYI….

  • arlette kahn says:

    Books on walking.

  • arlette kahn says:

    Books on walking health and well being

  • Raúl says:

    Me agrada que la informaclon fuera en español, gracias!

  • Rik Jurcevic says:

    “One wonders what James Joyce—whose Ulysses is built almost entirely on a scaffolding of walks around Dublin—would make of this” post.

  • Fred LaMotte says:

    Solvitur ambulando (it is solved by walking) ~St. Augustine

  • Michael L Wilcox says:

    Oh Barb,
    I understand the love of walking in nature. I live near numerous walking trails and mountains are close by. The scenery is beautiful, and walking in nature slows things done, which is great. BUT…no poetry from urban walking? Mon Dieu! You can’t be serious! I never felt more a part of humanity when walking down a street in Paris, never felt more alive than when out for a stroll in Rome. When I lived in Chicago, I walked and walked and walked. City streets are full of passion and stories,and there is plenty of poetry to be found.

  • Lea von Kaenel says:

    I am thinking that walking each day will foster creativity after my stroke

  • Lea von Kaenel says:

    Thank you

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