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.


Read the full article at "A Walk in the Park" at The Chronicle of Higher Education.