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The Secret Behind Steve Jobs’ “Walking Meetings”

Have you ever taken part in a “walking meeting”? People who work closely with Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, arguably two of the most successful and innovative people of our time, have probably experienced these on a regular basis. Both of these influential people are known for frequently having important business meetings while walking outside. They certainly have enough building space to hold a meeting inside, so why do they do this? Have they noticed something about walking that helps them think differently than if they were sitting in a meeting room? Walking is known to be beneficial for our physical health, but what about its effect on our cognitive functioning?

Previous studies indicate multiple ways in which physical movement impacts select cognitive processes (e.g. Kramer, Erickson, & Colcombe, 2006; Klatzky, Pellegrino, McCloskey, & Doherty, 1989). Evidence shows that individuals who exercise more have stronger attention skills and less cognitive decline as they age. This research raises some interesting questions about the connection between the mind and the body and ways we can improve our overall cognitive abilities.

Currently, many schools are cutting back on gym classes and recess time in order to fit more Math and Language Arts subject time into the schedule. This may be a result of the fact that many public school teachers are being evaluated based on the standardized test scores of their students… not their students’ happiness, personal growth, or physical wellbeing. Students and parents alike are not pleased with these recent changes, but school administrators are quick to defend the changes by telling parents that their children will have more time in the classroom and will learn more. However, do the negative consequences of these cutbacks outweigh the benefits? One of the most important goals of the education system is to give rise to inquisitive and innovative young citizens. It is likely that less physical activity will have a negative effect on the students’ physical health, but how might it affect the students’ thinking processes? In particular, how could it affect their ability to think creatively and ask intelligent questions?

A study conducted by Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) investigated these positive effects of walking on creative thinking in adults. It included four separate experiments to fully examine the effects of sitting or walking, inside or outside, on creative thinking.

Creativity is the act of generating novel ideas through imagination and asking the question “what if?” It is valued in many aspects of our lives, including building relationships, solving problems, creating art, and being resourceful on a daily basis. In order to make important contributions to society, we must practice our abilities to think creatively! As students, we must be able to question theories, and wonder about possibilities. Almost every profession includes aspects that require people to think in an original way. So, how are these creative thinking abilities maintained and are there ways in which we can enhance them?

How do we go about measuring a concept that is so complex and multidimensional like creativity? It is something that is not always easy to generate among participants in a laboratory setting. Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) chose to use three different tools to measure creativity: Guilford’s alternate uses test (GAU), the compound remote-association test (CRA), and Barron’s symbolic equivalence task (BSE). All of these tasks are standard to measuring creativity, and all three do so in different ways. The GAU is a measure of cognitive flexibility and it is a divergent thinking task. In divergent thinking tasks, participants are asked to generate multiple solutions based on a given prompt. The GAU asks participants to generate alternate uses for objects. For example, one participant was asked to generate alternate uses for a button, and responded with: a doorknob for a dollhouse, a tiny strainer, or an eye for a doll. Alternatively, in the CRA, participants are asked to make a single word that can be related tohree given words (ex. “cottage-Swiss-cake” = cheese”). This is a convergent thinking task because it asks participants to use a set of clues to arrive at a single correct solution, indicating a more systematic and linear thinking process than divergent thinking. However, the CRA was not used after Experiment 1 because it failed to produce any significant results. The BSE is the most complex of these measures. It measures divergent thinking by asking participants to generate analogies to three base statements. In this task, participants must make a similar statement (using their creativity) by understanding the surface structure and the proper use of the original statement. One example of a given statement would be “a candle burning low,” and an example of a possible analogy to that would be “the last hand of a gambler’s last game” Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014).

In Experiment 1, all participants completed the GAU and CRA while sitting at a desk, then while walking on a treadmill. In experiment 2, participants completed the GAU while either sitting inside then walking on a treadmill, walking on a treadmill then sitting inside, or sitting inside then sitting inside again. In experiment 3, participants completed the GAU while either sitting inside then sitting inside, sitting inside then walking outside, walking outside then sitting inside, or walking outside then walking outside. In experiment 4, participants completed the BSE while either sitting inside, sitting outside (pushed in a wheelchair), walking on a treadmill, or walking outside. In Experiments 1-3, participants were asked to take a given creativity task twice: once during the first condition and once during the second condition. This was to avoid the effects of individual differences. In Experiment 4, participants were assigned to one specific condition and only took the creativity test once.

Results from Experiment 1 indicated that people showed significantly higher levels of creative thinking after walking on a treadmill, as predicted. However, these results generate a few important questions. The first is the question of effects of practice. In the first experiment, all participants were given the creativity test while sitting, and then given the creativity test again while walking on a treadmill. So, it is possible that it was simply the act of taking the creativity test twice that made participants improve. This question was addressed in Experiment 2. Participants were randomly selected to three conditions: sitting then walking, walking then sitting, or sitting then sitting (control). Fortunately for the hypothesis of this study, participants continued to perform better on the creativity task after taking the walk, independent of their condition.

When we exercise, our bodies release hormones that can affect our mood and cognitive processes (Monastra, 2008). Is it possible that any sort of physical activity, regardless of the type or in what setting, has a similar beneficial for creativity? The simple effect of treadmill walking on creative thinking is an exciting finding. However, for most people, generating ideas while walking on a treadmill is not an easily accessible opportunity. A much more ordinary behavior would be simply taking a walk outside. So, Experiment 3 tested the effects of sitting indoors or walking outside on the generation of alternate uses for objects (GAU).

However, “walking outside” could mean many different things. In this study, people who walked outside walked through a busy university campus. Could these results be different if participants were asked to walk through the woods or down deserted streets? This introduces a variety of variables that were not extensively explored in the article. Firstly, walking through a busy University campus may have prompted human interactions. Even simple eye contact with strangers may have affected performance on the creativity task. Humans are naturally social creatures, so it is possible that even the stimulation of a highly populated area could have increase levels of creativity. Walking in a place with many people provides very different type of stimulation than simply walking in nature.

In Experiment 4, Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) combined the findings from their previous experiments in order to examine the effects of walking vs. sitting, inside vs. outside, on a new measurement of creativity: the generating of creative analogies. Participants either sat inside, walked on a treadmill inside, sat outside being pushed by a wheelchair, or walked outside and spent five minutes generating analogies for three prompts: a robbed safe, a light bulb burning out, and a budding cocoon. As expected, all participants in the walking conditions (indoors or outdoors) generated significantly more analogies than participants in the sitting conditions. Participants who walked outside generated slightly more analogies compared to participants who walked on a treadmill, but the results were not significant. This evidence suggests that there is no difference in the environment in which the participant walks, and the external flow of stimulation does not actually have a large impact on creative thinking. It must be something about the physical act of walking that has positive effects on the ability to generate alternate uses for objects. (Related post: “Does Type of Exercise Matter in Terms of Benefits for Working Memory?” http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2014/04/27/does-type-of-exercise-matter-in-terms-of-benefits-for-working-memory/.)

These results raise an interesting question regarding cognitive control. Cognitive control is the management of cognitive processes including attention, memory, perception, planning, problem solving and motor behaviors. When we select certain stimuli over distracting stimuli during a task, we are demonstrating cognitive control. In this experiment, participants were asked to walk at a pace that felt natural to them. This demands little cognitive control because it is a relatively simple task that is performed on a regular basis. In other words, walking at one’s natural pace is automatic. One question we can ask is: how might results on creativity tasks be different if participants were asked to do the task while engaging in activities that required more cognitive control? One example of a task that would require more cognitive control is if participants were asked to walk at a speed that is faster than normal or if they were asked to walk backwards. Tasks that require more cognitive control, by definition, also require more attention because they are less automatic and more difficult mentally. Due to the capacity theory, which states that attention is limited in overall capacity, we would probably expect participants to do worse on a task that requires more cognitive control. This is because participants would be forced to split their attentional resources between tasks. However, could there be a unique exception regarding the capacity theory for walking or other kinds of physical activity? Furthermore, could performance on the creativity task during walking, speed walking, or walking backwards be improved with repeated practice, indicating an improvement in cognitive control?

As we see in the study conducted by Oppezzo et al. (2014), physical activity can have significant positive effects on cognition during the time of activity. However, many studies have also investigated the impact of physical activity on long-term cognitive abilities. Lautenschlager, Cox, Flicker, Foster, van Bockxmeer, Xiao, Greenop, and Almeida (2008) studied whether physical activity reduces the rate of cognitive decline in adults who were at risk. They found that even a physical activity program as short as six months was able to improve performance on a word list delayed recall task and the overall Clinical Dementia Rating of participants, when participants were tested 18 months later! This is exciting, applicable knowledge to the field of cognitive psychology. If physical activity can have long-term affects on memory in those at risk for cognitive decline, what could be the long-term affects of physical activity on creativity? Is it possible that we can be more creative through long-term devotion to physical activity? These are questions that should definitely be investigated in the future!

When thinking about future potential studies, is important to note the factors that could have influenced the relationship between walking and creativity. These factors are called mediators. Biological mediators, including circulatory and body chemical changes from walking, could have affected levels of creativity. Mood is another possible mediator, because exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mood. However, this mediator is unclear because evidence for the connection between mood and creativity is contradictory. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goldman (1995) examines the relationship between laughter and creativity. He suggests that laugher, an indication of lighter and more positive moods, can lead to more comprehensive thinking. When we laugh, we are more likely to have access to ideas and associations stored in memory. This introduces the idea of availability versus accessibility: everything one person learns is there, but it just might not be accessible without certain cues or contexts. So, though creative and expressive thoughts may be available in our minds all of the time, we may not always be able to access these thoughts. Therefore, it is likely that activities like laughing and walking impact the accessibility of creative thoughts, possibly serving as unique types of cues, allowing us to have greater access to our own creativity.

This knowledge is exciting because it can be applied to almost any context. In schools, it is clear evidence that students need enough physical activity and time outside to maximize their ability to think creatively. Recess time and PE are clearly related to the physical and mental well-being of the child, and they should not be cut from the school day! In the business world, it is also important to constantly generate new ideas and think creatively regarding future directions. To impact society in a meaningful way, we must all strive to be creative thinkers and visionary individuals. These practices may not make you the founder and CEO of one of the world’s largest information technology companies, but it may have a significant improvement in the way you think. Go take a walk!

 

References

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Lautenschlager N., Cox K., Flicker L., Foster, J., van Bockxmeer, F., Xiao, J., Greenop, K., & Almeida, O. (2008). Effect of Physical Activity on Cognitive Function in Older Adults at Risk for Alzheimer Disease: A Randomized Trial. JAMA, 300(9), 1027-1037.

Monastra, V. (2008). Unlocking the potential of patients with ADHD: A model for clinical practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Oppezzo, M. & Schwartz, D. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 1142-1152.

 

  1. jwlester
    December 2nd, 2014 at 19:04 | #1

    For me, walking meetings sound like a dream. I had no idea such prominent executives were walking on a different path, so to speak, and using non-traditional meeting strategies. Quite simply, I think I would feel better if I was walking instead of sitting while trying to be engaged with someone or tap into my creativity-sitting feels too constrained. Standing/walking opens up the lungs . So it is super cool to see that there are cognitive reasons to add to my personal comfort reasons for moving about.

    I liked your point about cognitive control and the simplicity of walking casually (and maybe its best to walk on a familiar route). The relation between moving (fidgeting) and mind wandering was addressed in Kelsey Davis’ post “Fidget Less, More Success!”. Her post talks about how losing focus on a task (like taking notes) and letting the mind wander coincides with fidgeting due to loss of executive control. I think that its possible that walking occupies this desire to move or distraction we feel in the physical realm, freeing our mind for creative processes. Davis says “Fidgeting increases with increased levels of mind wandering”. I think walking basically eliminates the concept of fidgeting by occupying that physical attention module. Cognitive control here is allowed to flow into creativity because it is not taken up by our need to move.

    One aspect that was very interesting to hear is that different types of exercise universally benefit us. This means that walking a few minutes can be adequate and some two hour workout before getting creative is not needed to get those cognitive juices flowing.

    I really like the simplicity and clarity of the experiment and your presentation of it. A clear conclusion was made that really made me think about the relationship between exercise and creativity.

    *A note: a few times while writing this post I got up and stretched, walked down the hall, or did push ups, and I think it helped me stay focused while I was actually typing!

  2. December 1st, 2014 at 22:50 | #2

    This article is very interesting for two reasons: 1) the topic you chose is accessible to people’s lives and virtually everyone can take the ideas you present to heart and 2) creativity is difficult to measure and the experiments you outline are unique. One would think that, because exercising requires attention and eventually depletes the body of energy, exercising does not equate to the most adequate setting for creative idea generation. Based on the capacity theory, attention would be divided more so than if one were sitting or lying in bed and therefore less expended energy would be optimal for ideas. However, a walk or any sort of movement allows for the mind to generate increased ideas because of the positive endorphins created. It is great to learn that the difference between outside versus inside is not significant because it allows for positive effects even when cold weather forces us indoors. The theory that walking or exercising may relax the suppression of memories is particularly intriguing because, if this is true, exercise could aid semantic disabilities.

  3. ehheilbr
    December 1st, 2014 at 20:13 | #3

    I found this post very interesting because it is so applicable to everyday life! I was first intrigued by the fact that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are both known to hold outside walking meetings. At first I thought that it would actually be much harder to get in any meaningful business talk while having to focus on walking around and making sure everyone can hear you, but after reading this post, it seems that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In her post, Courtney talks about an experiment that supports the idea that people are more creative after walking, either on a treadmill or outside, than people who do not walk on a treadmill or who were just sitting inside before doing the creative task they were assigned. As someone who has always enjoyed exercise, this gives me even more motivation to hit the treadmill, especially during times when I may feel overwhelmed and uninspired! Courtney also writes about how people who exercise more have better attention skills and less cognitive decline throughout aging. This finding relates to what we have talked about in class with regards to attention, and how the controlled processes that come with attention decline with age. However, if exercise helps with both attention and cognitive processes, everyone should be encouraged to exercise more: especially children, who need to form a strong basis about the importance of physical education at a young age, which makes it even worse that schools are cutting recess time. I thought this post was really well written and clear, but something I wondered was how long did the participants walk for? How long do you need to walk for it to make a difference in our creativity? For instance, does walking from Pulver to Davis give us that extra boost of creativiety and mood enhancement? Overall I enjoyed reading this, and will make sure to get in a lot of walking and exercise, especially during finals!

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