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


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 see 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 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, “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 tack­led the where ques­tion in a paper titled “The Cog­ni­tive Ben­e­fits of Inter­act­ing with Nature.” Their study, writes Jabr, showed that “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

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

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

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Comments (21)
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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 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

  • Chastity Lincoln says:

    The brain is deprived oxy­gen when work­ing out. Blood flow to the brain goes from 14% to 4% when active­ly mov­ing (Amer­i­can Coun­cil on exer­cise), and for this rea­son I would think that the change in blood flow that is oxy­gen rich would help mood, cre­ativ­i­ty; and clar­i­ty.

  • Peggy Adams says:

    I’m an 80-year-old walker–three miles, 20/25 minute mile, dai­ly walk­er in a park-walk­ing trail, sandy trails, or on the beach near water and/or where the sand is hard and damp. Aside from the health ben­e­fit: abil­i­ty to con­trol my blood pres­sure and blood sug­ar with­out drugs, I also have more ener­gy. As a short-sto­ry writer, my best ideas for a new sto­ry or enhance­ments to an ongo­ing sto­ry have hap­pened on my walks. I always have a pad and pen with me, and often—when the idea is real­ly, real­ly good, I stop my walk, and jot down enough to help me recre­ate the idea when I get home. And I usu­al­ly write an out­line and make notes on this idea, even before I have my first cup of cof­fee or tea. I am a firm believ­er in walk­ing to enhance your life and abil­i­ty to make for a rich­er life. And I also encour­age all to write, rewrite and be cre­ative even if only for your self. I call this brain-exer­cise… keep it work­ing by work­ing it! Thanks for shar­ing!!

  • peggy adans says:

    Yes. I believe we all have to find our own out­let and what­ev­er works best for us. I think the idea that your mind is ‘work­ing’; being aware of what’s around one is of ben­e­fit. I too have walked in the city and you are right, there are sto­ries there too.
    I think the idea is “to walk” not ‘to stroll’ where ever is the key to imag­i­na­tion!
    May you con­tin­ue to walk, be safe and enjoy.

  • Peggy Adams says:

    I know hav­ing a stroke ‘sucks’ but make the best of it —con­sid­er the alter­na­tive. You can def­i­nite­ly make a bet­ter life for your­self with walk­ing a part of your dai­ly pro­gram. Experts say we only need 30 min­utes a day to enhance our life. I sug­gest you began to write a sto­ry of how you feel about this stroke and what you plan to do after. I start­ed writ­ing as if I was writ­ing a let­ter to a fam­i­ly mem­ber. Have now moved into short sto­ry writ­ing hav­ing pub­lished two sto­ries so far. You may have a good short sto­ry once you fin­ish your let­ter, but more impor­tant­ly you have kept your mind work­ing at a high­er lev­el of action than if you were at a ‘pity— par­ty’. Good luck with your walk­ing pro­gram. Be nice to know if it works for you.

  • ernesto amezcua says:

    Ten­emos un canal de you tube en español que habla de todo esto… Por si te intere­sa

  • laura jeffries says:

    In A Sta­tion of the Metro

    The appari­tion of these faces in a crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    — Ezra Pound

  • Ralph says:

    I’m an urban work­er for the most part. Like most peo­ple I live in an urban land­scape which means I are oblig­ed to make the best of what we have. In my case there are a num­ber of green spots on my walks in the form of ravines and parks to off­set the greys and glass of the city. But some­thing can be said for the man-made world as well. An urban walk has its charms, its chang­ing views and vis­tas and it has chance encoun­ters with our fel­low crea­tures. When I trav­el I enjoy long walks. When I was in Tokyo in 2016 I was aver­ag­ing about to 15 kms a day. I did the same in Paris the pre­vi­ous sum­mer. I walked into cen­tral Paris from my hotel just below the pérépherique on a dai­ly basis. It took me about an hour but I saw so much of the city I wouldn’t have below ground in the Métro. That’s inspi­ra­tion too.

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