Footnotes: Walking and Creativity

When I started working in London, a lengthy commute became part of my daily life. Door to door, the return journey is about 4.5 hours – and that’s on a good day, when the train runs on time and the Piccadilly line isn’t changing its wheels. In an episode of Mad Men, Pete Campbell wants to leave the suburbs and return to an apartment in the city; he complains to his wife, Trudy, that “it’s an epic poem for me to get home”. I feel your pain, Pete. Fortunately, my day begins and ends with a 40-minute walk that takes me along a riverside, past rowers and dog-walkers, and down peaceful backstreets of terraced houses. At this time of year, frosty sunrises can be spectacular. I value this quiet time to prepare and plan for the day ahead, or to put distance between the demands of work and recuperating on my sofa. I often compose blog posts while I walk, or mull over some thorny issue. I like the gentle and frequent switching of attention, as my mind wanders from swans to staffing issues to trees to print deadlines, and so on…

Walking is often linked with creativity, especially for its capacity to aid problem-solving and unlock new ideas. For this post, I wanted to explore walking and creativity from a range of perspectives, and was pleasantly surprised by the variety of content online. In fact, you could say that I’m going over well-trodden ground (apologies). So rather than reinvent what already exists, I’ll briefly introduce some articles and websites that I found interesting and leave you to explore further.

But before I do that, a bit of science…

Walking was clearly having a moment during 2013 and 2014; so many of the articles I’ve found date to that period. In 2014, Stanford University published a study that confirmed walking improves creativity. Four experiments were conducted to measure creative thinking. Subjects were tested after walking (on a treadmill) or sitting indoors. They were also tested after walking or sitting (while being pushed in a wheelchair) outdoors along a predetermined path on the Stanford campus. Three of the experiments tested ‘divergent thinking’, and one experiment tested ‘convergent thinking’. Divergent thinking involves generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, whereas convergent thinking is a narrowing of attention to find one correct answer. Their findings show that divergent thinking is greatly improved by walking; the creative output improved by 60% for those walking (either indoors or outdoors). Interestingly, walkers scored slightly worse than sitters for convergent thinking, so it seems that some types of creative thinking are better served by walking than others.

The Stanford research was quoted in an article in The New Yorker (3 September 2014) titled, Why Walking Helps Us Think. The author summarises some of the health benefits of walking and name-checks a number of writers who were known for their urban perambulations (such as James Joyce in Dublin, and Virginia Woolf in London). A BBC article, The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, also published in 2014, introduces a range of books on walking (such as, A Philosophy of Walking, The Lost Art of Walking, and The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker). It concludes with a few tips for making the most of purposeless walking, many of which involve unplugging from portable technology and attending to the immediate environment instead.

Walking has long been established as form of art practice. The handily-titled website, Walking Artists Network, is a useful starting point, and includes content on related fields, such as “architecture, archaeology, anthropology, cultural geography, history, spatial design, urban design and planning”. It was through this site that I discovered Walking Women, a week-long series of walks, talks and screenings that took place at Somerset House in London last summer. Edited audio extracts have been compiled into two podcasts, available on the website. I would also recommend checking out Women Who Walk,  the Walking Reading Group and Walk Walk Walk.

The exhibition, Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 Years of Art Walking, curated by Art Circuit Touring Exhibitions and shown in five venues in 2013/14, captured the walking zeitgeist. It claimed to be, “the first to examine the astonishingly varied ways in which artists since the late 1960s have used what would seem like a universal act – of taking a walk – as a means to create new types of art”. In 2015, the Empathy Museum launched its first exhibition, A Mile in My Shoes, a shoe shop where the public could literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The accompanying playlist included short recorded interviews with the owners of the shoes, offering a glimpse into their lives.

Walking and creativity take on a different purpose in the business world. Walking meetings are de rigueur, and have been popularised by the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. A recent Harvard Business Review article (August 2015) even offers advice on How To Do Walking Meetings Right, and proves that it’s possible to monetise just about anything:

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that walking meetings lead to more honest exchanges with employees and are more productive than traditional sit-down meetings. Based on this, we undertook an exploratory study of the benefits associated with walking… In short, we find that those who participate in walking meetings are 5.25% more likely to report being creative at their jobs than those who do not. Additionally, the responses suggest that walking meetings support cognitive engagement, or focus, on the job. Those who participate in walking meetings are 8.5% more likely to report high levels of engagement.

What we found adds support to the notion of walking meetings being beneficial for workers. Is an increase in creativity of 5.25% likely to make or break a business? Most likely not. However, look at these findings through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis. The costs associated with regularly participating in walking meetings are next to nil… There may be no cheaper way to achieve moderate increases in creativity and engagement.

Alternatively, you could try Street Wisdom, “a global social enterprise with a mission to bring inspiration to every street on earth”. I absolutely love this premise – volunteer facilitators, called street guides, are trained to lead a group through a three-hour workshop. The sessions are free and available to anyone who signs up. The format is beautifully simple:

 

  • First, a street guide helps you and your group tune up your senses so you can pick up much more information from the urban environment that you would normally.
  • Then you’re off on a journey by yourself – your street quest – where you ask a question and see what answers present themselves.
  • Finally, you gather together again to share what happened and, more often than not, wonder at how magical an ordinary street can become when you’re really aware of those hidden messages, chance meetings and unexpected discoveries.

The effects of this process are profound: “In just three hours of walking and wandering, participants have resolved problems that have dogged them for years, found new business ideas, changed careers, discovered new directions, and learned how to deal differently with living, learning and loving.”

I also love the premise of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2012). Its author, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, walked around the block where she lives in New York, observing as much of her surroundings as possible. She then repeated the journey, accompanied each time with one of 10 experts (including a geologist, naturist and sound designer, amongst others). You can probably guess the rest. Each walk with a different specialist revealed different aspects of her environment that she wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It’s an artful way of reminding us to both pay more attention and value others’ perspectives. There is a short promotional film on Youtube which is worth a look, and an in-depth article on Brainpickings.

And finally, I want to include walking as a form of mindfulness. The types of walking that I discuss above are designed to be stimulating, social and generative. In comparison, walking meditation is calming and distinctly solitary. Rooted in Buddhism, there are many different approaches to this practice – Live and Dare’s blogpost, The Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation, highlights six examples. I also liked Wildmind’s introduction to walking meditation, that gives an indication of what the practice involves.

Given the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other, it’s amazing how much walking brings to the processes of thinking, talking, making, looking and even just being.
Header Image: Pair of Foot Jars, Peru; Inca Valley Paracas, 2nd-1st century BC, ceramic, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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4 thoughts on “Footnotes: Walking and Creativity

  1. Why bother reading journals when Kiwilooseinmuseums does it for you. Goodness what scholarship! What depth of investigation on a topic so many of us would just take for granted – and how enriched we are as a result. I think I will save some pennies and join Sarah in one of those early morning walks along the river – one day soon

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