Movement really does spark creativity — unless you’re staring at a screen

Beginning with philosophers in ancient Greece, forms of movement — such as walking — have been widely regarded as beneficial to our ability to think creatively. Recent research has explored the long-perceived connection between physical activity and thinking, seeking to finally determine if there is scientific truth behind thousands of years of popular belief. 

While creativity is thought to include divergent and convergent thinking as its two major processes, the current study focused on divergent thinking. This kind of thinking involves the ability to conceive of new ways to solve a singular problem, while convergent thinking focuses on identifying one new solution to a problem through the merging of many problems or concepts.

Divergent thinking is regarded to be particularly benefited by unrestrained movement like walking. Researchers sought to determine if lack of restriction was the cause of improved creative processing, or if movement alone was responsible. 

In their study, researchers observed the impact of motor restrictions on divergent thinking, as well as assessing spontaneous eye blinks for ability to predict performance. Using Guilford’s alternative uses task (AUT), an assessment that asks participants to come up with as many solutions for a prescribed problem as possible, researchers assessed performance and spontaneous eye blinks during walking and sitting conditions.

Results showed that participants earned higher AUT scores while walking rather than sitting. Eye blinks did not correlate with AUT performance.

Researchers tested again by assigning some participants a restricted walking path and others to walk or sit freely. Those results showed that restriction had significant effects on scores, while the impact of walking was far less significant. While researchers did demonstrate that unrestrained walking has positive effects on creative thinking, they found that a similar pattern emerged with unrestrained sitting. 

“Our research shows that it is not movement per se that helps us to think more flexibly,” says neuroscientist Dr. Barbara Händel from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Germany, in a statement.

Rather, researchers found, it is the ability to choose to move as one wishes that is responsible for improved creative thinking. In fact, their study found that making small movements while sitting down can have similar positive effects on mental processing.

The suppression of movement into forced patterns tends to trigger negative effects on creativity, researchers observed. “Unfortunately, this happens when people focus for example on a small screen,” says Händel.

With a marked increase in mobile phones and other similar devices during the pandemic, including in education, this could point to negative impacts on creative processes. 

“The important thing is the freedom to move without external constraints,” Händel says.

This study is published in Psychological Research.

Article written by Anna Landry

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