Appendix D – The Positive Effect of Walking on Creativity

How Primal Process Theory would interpret the findings made by Oppezzo and Schwartz.

Oppezzo and Schwartz attributed the increase in people's ‘creative thinking’ while walking to an increase in their levels of ‘divergent thinking’ (e.g. free association styles of thought and analogical thinking). But why this should be the case was never fully discussed. Although walkers did less well on convergent thinking tasks (e.g. as would be involved in solving a math problem) as compared to seated subjects, and this provides an important clue, Primal Process Theory offers up several plausible reasons why people are more likely to be creative while walking.

The first reason relates to the fact that any activity that would be apt to place a person into a state of being conducive to the Integrating Self Function (ISF) would also be a creative one. This would be due to information and the person both being in a high state of connectedness. This would allow for high ‘flow’, low impedance condition to emerge. When any of the three pre-existing default mindsets are dominant, impedance (which is to say 'resistance') to alternative perspectives is high. Thus the ISF is what allows for many novel cross-fertilizations to arise.

The second most fecund condition for creativity to arise takes place in the ‘cusp’ states between mindsets, as shown in Figure 5.1 in Chapter 5. This condition is somewhat more limited in its creative potential if only because it is more limited by the content determined by the perspectives of their progenitor mindsets. Cusp conditions also tend to be more short-lived.

In our view, the results seen in the Oppezzo and Schwartz experiment suggests that merging a creativity task with the act of walking places a person within a cusp-like state, one between a ‘low-grade’ action-oriented version of the fighting mindset due to the physical activity itself, and a ‘low-grade’ flight version of the defeated mindset (e.g. walking simultaneously provides an opportunity to ‘escape’ the stresses of life). Nevertheless, both are ‘high’ neuron recruitment activities engaging the cerebellum, the region of the brain we use to coordinate our gait and movements.

Ironically, this very fact may be what is required to make people ‘less guarded’ in the brain regions normally involved in neuron-controlled, language-based subject matter. In other words, it may be why people become both more talkative and more creative while they walk. As neuron-controlled thinking functions become pre-occupied (within reasonable limits of course), the more reverie-oriented day dreaming free-association states would stand a better chance of arising. One might even say that in walking, the dominance of more linear-minded, neuron-centred thinking processes step aside for the more ‘fluid’ or impressionistic, analog-style of thinking we associate with glial function.

The fact seated people were less creative as compared to walking people (as cited on pages 6 and 7 of their study) is consistent with this line of reasoning. It may also be the case that because sitting is a more ‘defeated-like’ physical condition as compared to actual walking, this could actually reduce people’s willingness to talk, and thus openly give voice to ideas coming into their phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad minds.

Still, to Oppezzo and Schwartz’s credit, they did mention that walking had a strong influence on associative memory, and that the sharing of ideas while walking with others led to an increase in novelty compared with other people’s ideas. Here the comparison pattern mentality being used by the individual in question could become a motivating factor in heightening creativity in either quasi-competitive terms or in ‘desire to belong’ terms. In a similar vein, the authors also referred to how the brain might be using a “flexibility pathway” within the dual pathway creativity model (as posited by Baas, De Dreu & Nijstad, 2008 and with Rietzschel in 2010) which unlike their ‘persistence pathway’, “does not require strong cognitive control” (page 8). This sounds to us a lot like a neuronal versus glial style processing distinction. The latter would have an ability to tolerate a higher amount of dissonance, a condition also characteristic of being in a mental cusp condition where fewer neuronal interconnections would have been established.

As to why walking in natural environments might be the most conducive to creative thought (although only marginally so when compared to walking indoors on a treadmill), Primal Process Theory would suggest it was due to the ‘connectedness consciousness’ walking in nature invites, one of the distinguishing features of the Integrating Self Function. In like fashion, and according to Oppezzo and Schwartz’s paper (on page 4), “Attention restoration theory (ART) posits that walking in natural environments invokes ‘soft fascination’, which does not require direct attention and allows for the renewal of direct attention capacities.”

For our part, we ourselves have experienced this very creative process as authors during our many weekend dog-walking sessions in a sand pit on the outskirts of Ottawa during the late 1990s and early 2000s. We would walk with various friends and came to speak about many of the topics that eventually came to reflect themselves in this book. [Also in relation to Attention restoration theory, we refer to another concept developed by one of us (Bajramovic) called ‘the optimal balance of stimulation’ in Chapter 12.]

The Oppezzo and Schwartz paper also raises a number of other implications as relates to child rearing practices. Among them, it would suggest parents who drive their kids to school and elsewhere on a regular basis, may be depriving them of more than much needed physical activity. They may be depriving them of a great brain development opportunity as relates to their creativity potential as well.