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Need a creative jumpstart?

Move!  When I was a kid, some of the most fun I ever had was playing on the family swing set.  It sat in an old peach orchard and was my personal stage.  I could be anyone and do anything on that swing. Its back-and-forth motion stirred my imagination like nothing else.  Soon I was rocketing off to far-away places. Living among exotic creatures. Dancing the night away with the most handsome prince in all the land. Where little sisters ruled and big sisters obeyed our every command.  I loved that swing more than anything.

Fast-forward to adulthood.  I don't have a swing set in my grown-up yard, although there's plenty of room and I'm seriously thinking of getting one.  In the meantime, I've taken up walking.  Big time.  And not just for the exercise. When I'm stuck on a writing project, a brisk jaunt down the road is all that's needed to blow out the cobwebs and get my creative juices flowing.

So here's the question:  Does movement really help creativity, or is it just some placebo-effect-kind-of-thing going on in our heads?  Well, it turns out there may be some real science behind the moving-creativity link.

In a study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Stanford University researchers concluded that creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly afterwards.

For the study, participants completed a series of creativity tests while sitting and again while walking.  One of the simpler tests required participants to identify alternative uses for a common item -- like a button, for instance.  The participants were given four minutes to come up with as many novel and appropriate uses for the item as they could.  According to the results, an "overwhelming majority" of participants produced significantly more and subjectively better ideas while walking than sitting. In fact, the creative output increased by an average of 60 percent for participants while walking.

In a more complicated test, the participants were asked to generate complex analogies to prompt phrases.  One of the researchers gave this example:  For the prompt phrase, "a robbed safe," a creative response would be something like "a soldier suffering from PSTD," which captures a sense of loss, violation and dysfunction.  Conversely, a less creative response would be something more like, "an empty wallet."

Got it?

Anyway, according to the study results, 100 percent of the participants who walked during this test were able to generate at least one high-quality novel analogy, compared to only 50 percent of those performing the test while sitting.

The researchers admitted that it's still unclear how a brief stroll alters the mental processes relating to creativity.  Some theorize that walking improves mood.  That in turn may help creativity blossom within a cheerier mindset. Others suggest that walking may re-direct energy that might otherwise be used to dampen or dull creative thought.

Seems to me there's more work to be done.  Perhaps it's time for a stroll. Or better yet, a trip to Sears.  I hear they're having a sale on swing sets.


Cindy Ritter is a Seattle-based freelance writer and publicist.