Let’s Take a Walk

Published

Living in NYC, I walk a lot. Looking over my Activity Record on my iPhone, my average step count is probably run-of-the-mill for most New Yorkers.

It should come as no surprise that the more walkable cities are also the most popular places to live. What should come as a surprise is that creativity may be a function of walking and time. By proxy, the cities that are most walkable, are likely to be the most creative. More on that later.

Let’s back up. This piece from the New York Times was initially published in 2014, but I only came across this via Hacker News. As a sidenote, I enjoy reading HN threads such as this one I just have to share:

I’ve been doing this ever since I can remember. But it only works if I exit the room so I always assumed it’s related to the doorway effect (the brain forgets/discards stuff when you walk through a doorway). […]

A reply:

L’esprit d’escalier (“staircase wit”) [Wikipedia Link]

I love how often HN comment threads can take from one place, and lead you down another perspective or parse a metaphor less traveled. Anyways, back to the New York Times piece.

With the enthusiastic support of her adviser, Daniel Schwartz, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Dr. Oppezzo recruited a group of undergraduate students and set out to see if she could goose their creativity. Gathering her volunteers in a deliberately dull, unadorned room equipped with only a desk and (somewhat unusually) a treadmill, Dr. Oppezzo asked the students to sit and complete tests of creativity, which in psychological circles might involve tasks like rapidly coming up with alternative uses for common objects, such as a button. Then the participants walked on the treadmill, at an easy, self-selected pace that felt comfortable. The treadmill faced a blank wall. While walking, each student repeated the creativity tests, which required about eight minutes.

For almost every student, creativity increased substantially when they walked. Most were able to generate about 60 percent more uses for an object, and the ideas were both “novel and appropriate.”

Now that’s something I can get into! But, if you’re like me, it’s not like we can all work and walk simultaneously. Let’s be realistic here. What about walking then working? Or, vice versa for that matter.

So Dr. Oppezzo next tested whether the effects lingered after a walk had ended. She had another group of students sit for two consecutive sessions of test-taking and subsequently walk for about eight minutes while tossing out ideas for object re-use, then sit and repeat the test.

Again, walking markedly improved people’s ability to generate creative ideas, even when they sat down after the walk. In that case, the volunteers who had walked produced significantly more and subjectively better ideas than in their pre-exercise testing period.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Measuring subjective results like creativity is obviously challenging. I’ll take these 2014 results with a grain of salt for sure.

However, I’m reminded of Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs. Jobs insisted on so many walking meetings, walk-breaks and walking brainstorms. Sure, Jobs was a colossal nutbag asshole who regularly destroyed interpersonal relationships at the behest of Apple, shareholders and ultimately his own demons. But his creativity, and persistence to inspire those around him to take the lead was insurmountably, undeniably a trademark many hope to emulate even to this day. The fruits of the labors then have led Apple to where they are now. 

If the Jobsian allusion doesn’t convince you, perhaps this will — New York City, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and a handful of others are listed as the most creative cities to live in the US. What do most of the these cities have in common? Considerable mass transit infrastructure, notable walkability scores, and growing populations. Sure none of those links are authorities on creativity. But one truth is evident. People are moving to walkable cities, or at the very least want to move to walkable cities.

The next time you’re in a creative rut, my recommendation is to go take a walk. That, or move to a walkable city. 🙃

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