Walking and Writing: The Effects of Exercise on Creative Thinking
In Charlotte Wood’s collection of interviews titled, The Writers Room, Tegan Bennett Daylight says, “Scratch a writer and you’ll find a walker.” In contexts, Daylight was discussing how daily walks are a vital part of her writing process as they assist in the unlooping of her thoughts. Though she uses walking as a way to stay fit, this particular form of daily movement has had a positive impact on her writing craft, especially when she encounters creative problems, “Almost everytime I go for a walk on my own, it brings me the solution I was looking for.” In terms of problem-solving, outlining, plot development or a simple deepening of understanding regarding one’s own work, Daylight believes that these insights occur because walking allows oneself to become “distracted enough from yourself to let the creative play start to happen.” Daylight is not alone in this opinion. Anecdotal evidence from both contemporary authors and literary juggernauts has long connected the usefulness of aerobic exercise to creative writing.
For some authors, the connection between walking and writing remains a mystery, though they know their craft is improved whenever they exercise. Australian author, Margo Lanagan, starts her daily writing practice in the early hours of the morning before she goes for a walk with a friend. When asked if this activity interrupts the flow of her writing, she says no, the walk simply puts some “useful distance” between her and the work. Counterintuitively, the hindrance from physical and mental distance created by the walk actually benefits Langan’s work.
While a daily walk can be an efficient way to take a break from a difficult manuscript, other authors use it intentionally to unloop thought, workout solutions or with the hope that the muse will reveal some creative insight. As Daylight says, “Maybe it’s because you’re distracted enough – because you need to look around when you cross the road or whatever – you’re distracted enough from yourself to let the creative play start to happen, and then your mind just goes, ‘Here’s the thing you’re looking for.’” Daylight goes on to hypothesise that these moments of insight may be brought on by an increase in endorphins. When the body relaxes, the mind is allowed to open up to “new possibilities.”
It is the potential to discover “new possibilities” that keeps writers on the track. The correlation between walking and creative insight is not always guaranteed, however, many authors have experienced this phenomenon, and for some, it has even solved issues of writers’ block. In his memoir/craft manifesto, On Writing, Stephen King says he experienced his first bout of writers’ block during his initial draft of The Stand. It was during an afternoon walk that a solution – that had been evading him for weeks – suddenly popped into his head and he was able to finish writing the first draft.
Beyond spontaneous insights and the space for mental clarity, walking – especially outside – can be a useful way to gather inspiration and stimuli that can fuel the creative process. Australian author Sarah Schmidt, often documents her daily walks by taking photos and posting them on her blog. The often eerie and unsettling images mirror the mood of her equally eerie and unsettling (though engrossing) debut novel, See What I Have Done. The photographs complement the mood and imagery of Sarah’s work, thus supporting her creative process, but the walk also grants her the time to contemplate her novel on a deeper level.
“I’m one of ‘those’ writers. You know the kind: fidgety, annoying, needs to walk out their thoughts, sees something along the way and thinks, ‘now that’s interesting. I wonder if…’ takes photos of it and then just stares at said photo for hours. I’m also desperately, heavily reliant on nature to help me write.”
Though walking appears to be a trend amongst writers, there may be a deeper connection between movement and our own basic physiology. As Hippocrates states, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Although any form of moderate exercise can result in improved cognitive ability and creative ideation, walking is the most natural form of exercise for the human body. When comparing walking to swimming and running, walking can occur over a longer period of time and at a lower risk of injury, for example, in 2010, The New York Times reported that 90 percent of marathon participants experience injury during their training. In addition to low-level injury, walking also stimulates the 7 200 nerve ending that run along the base of our feet. The same nerves that are activated in Chinese medicine (reflexology) to encourage balance through the organ, endocrine, nerve and lymphatic system.
Our preference for walking may also be primal. Until 10,000 years ago, humans did not live in permanent housing or villages; they were nomadic. A hint that perhaps, being in movement is a natural human state. Author and renown nomad, Sarah Wilson – who’s lived out of a suitcase/backpack for eight years – offers the following insight into movement. “I know this: It’s in movement that we find so much joy. It’s in movement that we create. It’s in movement that we fend and grow and connect more readily with big minds and reach more important touch points […] Studies show babies are most settled when rocked at the same pace at which a woman walks. We are calmed by the primitive memory of our moving ancestors.” Similarly, in a New York Times piece about writer and nomad Bruce Chatwin, the following line was offered, “Movement itself might be the ideal human state.”
Ideal or not, walking does improve our ability to think more creatively. In a study conducted by Stanford University in 2014, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found that creative ideation increased during and shortly after walking. In a ‘meta’ moment, the idea for this experiment arose while Marily and Daniel were out on a walk. The study featured four experiments that tested participants creative divergent thinking by having them complete the Guilford’s alternate use (GAU) test. Their convergent thinking was tested using the compound remote associates (CRA) test. The study compared the effects of walking on a treadmill, sitting then walking, walking then sitting, walking outside and being pushed in a wheelchair outside. Following a walk, 81% of the 176 students had an increased improvement on their GAU score and 23% on the CRA test.
One experiment required participants to devise alternative uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tyre. On average, students were able to think of four to six additional uses for the ordinary object when they were walking compared to when they were sitting down. Another experiment asked students to contemplate the metaphor “a budding cocoon,” and to brainstorm as many unique but equivalent metaphors as possible. This reveals that 95% of students who went for a walk were successful 95%, compared to only 50% of students who remained seated. However, the study found that walking lessened students’ performance when the task required laser thinking. Oppezzo hypothesised that walking proved counterproductive in this instance due to the minds tendency to drift while walking. “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”
Where you walk also impacts its effectiveness. A 2008 study conducted by the University of South Carolina found that students who walked in nature had improved performance on a memory test compared to students who walked city streets. The value of outdoor walks, particularly in nature rather than urban environments, is supported through a small but growing collection of studies. Our cognitive abilities and our attention deplete over the course of a day. The intense stimulus that exists in urban environments – noise, traffic, and signs – can quickly exhaust an individual. However, walks in nature tend to be more restorative due to the lack of stimuli and reduction in external threats; the mind is allowed to relax and drift. That being said, writers are also observers. So, there is value in taking a walk through a city or suburb as these environments can provide inspiration or ideas that can support the writing process.
Regardless of the environment, Oppezzo and Schwaltz discovered that walking continued to improve participant’s creative ideation even after they had returned to their desks. At least, for a short while.
Though the above studies and anecdotes prove that there is a connection between creative thinking and walking, neither addresses the physiological changes that occur during aerobic exercise. Walking changes body chemistry as the heart is encouraged to pump faster, increasing the volume of blood and oxygen to the muscles and organs –the brain included. This explains why people who don’t exercise regularly experience an improvement in their memory and attention to detail following a period of mild exercise. In terms of greater mental health, regular walks assist in the developing of new connections between brain cells while holding off the weakening of brain tissue associated with aging. Walking increases the size of the hippocampus (responsible for memory). It also lifts the molecule levels needed for the growth of new neurons while assisting in the transmitting of messages between them. The clarifying effect experience during and after exercise is the result of these physiological changes.
Fresh ideas, solutions and the ability to see “new possibilities” occur more frequently when a person is in an aerobic zone. Neuroscientists have discovered that this increase in creative thinking occurs when the mind is allowed to go into a non-thinking default state of consciousness. Many creatives tell anecdotes of how a fresh or exciting idea spontaneously popped into their mind when they were busy doing something else. As Henry Miller said, “Most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever.” Though some may be tempted to give all credit to the muse, the catalyst behind these spontaneous insights is physiological and psychological: there is an increased supply of oxygen to the brain and the mind is free to wonder.
In a 1911 essay by William James called On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men and the Gospel of Relaxation, James offers his own take on this non-thinking default state, advising a need to avoid blindly focussing on the details of a solution and its corresponding plan of action.
“When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.”
When the mind is unclamped or quietened, then the subconscious mind may produce solutions that the conscious mind could never think of. Our thoughts are the results of millions of neurons linking together in a pattern known as an engram. By unclamping our thoughts, as James suggests, the repetitive thought loops that occupy our conscious mind can be broken and new neural networks that will better support the imagination can be created. This explains, in part, the very human habit of going for a walk when in a state of emotional upset – the movement breaks the thoughts that create the emotion.
Writing could be described as a conglomeration of personal experiences, observations, external stimuli consciously or subconsciously absorbed and the occasional random insight. These different sources of information settle in our brains, as Ann Patchett describes, like a “mental compost.” It’s through the act of walking that an author is able to shake free this compacted knowledge and discover something useful. This can only occur, however, if the mind is unclamped or enters a non-thinking state. A fact about heart disease read weeks ago and promptly forgotten may reappear while trekking a deserted bush track. Suddenly, the writer is able to fix that drab scene with their overweight, over-aged protagonists by transforming it into a medical drama!
Not all writers are walkers, yet many are. Though some see this casual form of exercise as nothing more than an excuse to take a break, some view it as a potentially useful practice for unlooping thoughts, for others, it is an essential tool in their craft kit. A daily walking habit will not turn an emerging writer into a best seller, but the endless author anecdotes, scientific proof and the basic physiological evidence allow for one solid conclusion: walking can help some writers some of the time, but you can’t make an ‘A-ha’ moment happen.
Ferris, J (2014) ‘Why Walking Help Us Think,’ The New Yorker, New York, available from: https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/walking-helps-us-think
Guilford, J (1967) ‘The Alternative Uses Test’, The Creative Huddle, available from: https://www.creativehuddle.co.uk/the-alternative-uses-test
King, S (2000) ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,’ Scribner, United State of America.
McDougall, C (2010) ‘Born to Run the Marathon?,’ The New York Times, New York, available from: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/04/born-to-run-the-marathon/
Mednick, S (1959) ‘The Remote Associates Test’, The Creative Huddle, available from: https://www.creativehuddle.co.uk/the-remote-associates-test
Oppezzo, M and Schwartz, D (2014) ‘Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative,’ Standford University, available from: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xlm-a0036577.pdf
Schmidt, S (2017) ‘Indies Introduce Q & A,’ Stauffer, J (interviewer) American Book Sellers Associaton, available from: http://bookweb.org/news/indies-introduce-qa-sarah-schmidt-36429
William, J (1922) ‘On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation,’ Harvard University, United States of America, available from: https://archive.org/details/onvitalreserves02jamegoog
Wilson, S (2017) ‘Why am I a nomad?’ Sydeny, available from: http://www.sarahwilson.com/2017/09/why-am-i-a-nomad/
Wood, C (2016) ‘The Writer’s Room: Conversations About Writing,’ Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Yanagihara, H (2017) ‘Bruce Chatwin: One of the Last Great Explorers,’ The New York Times, New York, available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/t-magazine/bruce-chatwin.html
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