We’re most creative when we have the freedom to move the way we want to, according to a new study from the University of Würzburg in Germany.
Researchers took a look at divergent thinking — the kind of creativity used to come up with new ideas. Several studies over the last decade have shown that walking can significantly help with this kind of creative thinking: “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas,” one 2014 study said.
“Our research shows that it is not movement per se that helps us to think more flexibly,” said Dr. Barbara Händel, a neuroscientist and the study’s co-author. “The important thing is the freedom to move without external constraints.”
Walk this way
Walking is best for creativity when people can walk wherever they want, in an unrestricted way, the researchers found, rather than walking in “a prescribed rectangular path:” it’s “the freedom to move, and not the characteristics of the path that has an influence.”
Researchers tested subjects’ creative output in four stages: free walking, restricted walking (where they had to walk back and forth in a straight path that had been marked out for them), free sitting (on a stationary armchair with a solid back, where they had the option to move) and restricted sitting (50 cm away from a computer, without the option to move).
The results? “Our studies show that fluency and flexibility scores in a divergent thinking task are higher during unrestricted movement than during unrestricted movement,” they found. This went beyond previously-established information about restricted vs. unrestricted walking, and found that even people sitting the way they wanted to made a difference.
In other words, “if subjects are forced to move in a controlled fashion, they will not profit from it,” they wrote.
But there are much smaller movements that can improve divergent thinking, too, like blinking. One specific kind of eye movement — spontaneous blinking, which is different from the reflexive blinking people do if, for instance, there’s wind or smoke near their eyes — also appears to be linked. While the researchers didn’t succeed at proving a relationship between blinking and divergent thinking, they said they’d like to see more research in this area.
Stop staring at your phone
Perhaps unsurprisingly, spending all day looking at our phones and computers aren’t great for our divergent thinking because, according to Händel, it forces our movement into restrictive patterns.
This has significant impact on students, the study says, “since most online teaching involves fixating on a computer screen, the amount of free body movements, including head and eye movements, are greatly reduced compared to a normal classroom set up.”
Encouraging students to go for a walk or even just move around a little between classes — or even adding in movements while they’re sitting — “can improve the flow of ideas and aid in the learning process,” say the researchers.
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