The Speed of Inspiration
In need of a burst of creativity? Go for a walk.
Creative people walk. The philosopher and compulsive stroller Friedrich Nietzsche left little room for debate when he claimed 125 years ago, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
And he had a lot of company in this belief, especially among the pantheon of the early big heads: Tchaikovsky, Rousseau, Dickens, Mahler, Thoreau, Kant — all were habitual walkers, some to the point of obsession. Thoreau, for instance, adhered to a simple calculus — he could write for an hour only if he offset that with an hour of walking. Tchaikovsky walked precisely two hours every day to remain creative. Rousseau believed he could conceive thoughts worthy of committing to paper only if he walked. Rousseau further claimed that just looking at a desk left him dissipated and vaguely nauseous, foreshadowing the affliction of modern cubicle dwellers everywhere.
Dickens may have been the most obsessive. He’d often suggest to guests “Let’s have a walk before dinner,” and then lead them off on a march of a dozen miles or more, returning with the host invigorated and guests on the point of debilitation and collapse. Along his route he’d let his imagination run wild, and would at times claim to see characters from his earlier books walking along the streets. “My walking is of two kinds,” Dickens wrote, “one straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond.” He boasted that “no gypsy on earth is a greater vagabond than myself.”
And it’s that vagabond state among walkers — moving aimlessly, not on a mission, drifting here and there, letting thoughts change with the passing view — that appears to best enliven fallow synapses, open the mind to new avenues, and fuel creativity. The prose for which Dickens was famed could only be “gained by walking dreamily in a place, it cannot be gained by walking observantly,” G.K. Chesterton noted of the author.
Recent science has been strengthening the links between walking and creativity.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Stanford University professors Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz delved into the links between physical activity and cognitive abilities, specifically, the effect of walking on creativity.
This project encompassed a series of four experiments. Each involved 40 to 50 students, with those students tested on their creativity under varied circumstances. (How do you test creativity? By asking the students to verbally list things that they might do or construct with random objects, say, a button, or a tire. Scores were based on both the sheer volume of ideas, as well as on novelty, with extra points for coming up with unique ideas.)
In one test, a group was given the test while seated, and then again while walking on a treadmill. The treadmill group had more creative ideas. One might reasonably conclude that this showed that test-taking ability improved on the second round. So the procedure was reversed; still the scores were higher walking than when sitting. (What’s more, the authors note, “walking left a residue that produced strong performance when participants were subsequently sitting.”)
Another test pitted those walking outdoors against those sitting indoors. Walkers again did better. Could this have been the result of visual and auditory stimulus of being outside in a more interesting environment? To control for this, seated students were also tested on the same outdoor route, but while being rolled in a wheelchair. Walkers still did better. “While research indicates that being outdoors has many cognitive benefits,” the authors wrote, “walking has a very specific benefit — the improvement of creativity.”
The end result from all tests: “Four studies demonstrate that walking increases creative ideation. The effect is not simply due to the increased perceptual stimulation of moving through an environment, but rather it is due to walking.”
It’s rewarding, of course, when 18th and 19th century thinkers and 21st century social scientists arrive at the same conclusion by very different routes. But we’re a long, long way from the 19th century these days, and I’d argue that it’s even more essential for creative types to be out walking more often today. Not only because that gets the creative thoughts flowing, but because it serves as a moat that create a temporary lull against the ghastly information onslaught of our era, and provides a vantage point to see how better to variously dodge and link the dross that surrounds us.
It’s no secret: we’re ceaselessly bombarded by information from every direction, from sun-up to sleep. Noise has always been present in human lives, and we’ve always worked to discern a signal within it. But the volume of noise has grown to death metal levels in recent years. Just the past century we’ve gone from magazines to radio to television to social media, each piling on information both useful and not. And it’s not as if one medium has replaced the other — it simply builds atop one another, like a massive algal bloom. The information mongers have lately even violated the portcullis of our smartphone lock screens, and now nattering at us with emails and texts and Twitter updates, like a gossipy pocket troll.
One recent study found that the amount of information we receive daily has increased fivefold in the last three decades, but that strikes me as conservative. In any event, we’re processing information constantly in a way that 19th centurions couldn’t fathom. Many of us like to think of ourselves as able to sift and sort on the fly, like human colanders. But it’s not that easy. All that information, ceaselessly deployed, create frustrating blockages in our minds and limits the flexibility that allows creativity.
To be creative, to restore flow, we need at a minimum more downtime, a shelter away from ceaselessly incoming rounds of dirt and dope and scoop and poop. And this is not just a Cape Cod for the mind, a time to relax before wading back into the sifting and processing. Daydreaming, it turns out, is part and parcel of how the mind works, of how it locates and makes sense of the data we’ve already accreted and the links between them.
“You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears,” wrote Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, in a recent New York Times article.
Walking with a touch of agreeable languor is an underappreciated gift — it endows us with the time to disentangle that logjam in our head and let the flow start to move again, then to build unexpected bridges between notions and ideas. A walk among trees and meadows is always welcome — merely being amid nature is a proven salve for mind and body. But even walking in a densely urban environment where you’re still under siege from Lilliputian mercenaries in the information army — armed with messages in store windows, ads plastered on passing buses, dudes dressed like fruits trying to entice you into a smoothie shop — you can still feel at a remove from The Information, as if viewing it from the far side of a wide moat. Walking creates a mobile oasis as it primes the well of creativity. It’s more essential to visit now that even in Wordsworth’s days of endless rambling.
I’ve got no truck against the information age. In fact, new tools make it easier than ever to compose on the fly — I use my iPhone in voice memo mode, and walk along the street dictating ideas and descriptions and sometimes whole paragraphs and once in a while the outline of a complete story. People I pass pay no attention, assuming I’m just another asshole on a cellphone.
I get plenty done on a walk — including much of this column, as it happens. I walk through woods and town, and then return home and head upstairs to my office, where I catch sight of my desk.
Long ago, it felt like my friend. But now tends to feel more like an ingot of dull iron, a dispiriting anchor of the soul. Indeed, the sight of it sometimes makes me a little nauseous. • 21 August 2014
Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. He's currently working on a book about the history of walking in America. Find him at his website or follow him @waynecurtis.
Article image: The Empty Chair by Samuel Luke Fildes (1870). Homepage image: Sweet Solitude by Edmund Blair Leighton.