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Chris’s Curiosities: One Small Step

"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" painting
Caspar David Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons
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"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" painting

The internet in January is always overrun with fitness articles, often from people that shouldn’t be writing them or those whose motivations seem suspect. This is not that article, I promise! This is just a blog post that scratches a curiosity-itch on the connection between creativity and walking.

A few years back, I read a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. It’s one of those books you might find at the checkout counter at your favorite bookstore next to “word of the day” calendars and the Burt’s Bees lip balm. Filled with anecdotes on the daily creative lives of some of the most lauded creatives to ever live, it was just the kind of thing to spark my curiosity.

Naturally, being what you could call a fan of classical music, I jumped right to the entries on classical composers. But then I continued to read and read and read, and as I did I began to notice a pattern: regardless of discipline, more often than not the famed creators in Daily Rituals made sure to do one thing...

Brahms-red-hedgehog.jpg
Otto Bohler
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Caricature of Johannes Brahms walking to the Red Hedgehog

They all went for a walk.

FAMOUS CLASSICAL WALKERS

Johannes Brahms was famous for his strolls. He was a big man with a big beard, and he was constantly out taking walks. Indeed, he was so well known for his passion for amateur pedestrianism that local newspapers loved to caricature him, rotund and deep in thought, hands clasped firmly behind his back on his way to the Vienna woods, or simply off to his favorite pub.

He was known to children, too, for carrying pennycandy along with him, which he would smilingly hand out to any youngsters he might encounter along the way.

That said, woe to the adult who, being granted the chance to accompany the great composer on one of his strolls, dared to attempt a conversation. The effort would earn them nothing more than a grunt and likely a heavily eyebrowed glare.

Brahms wasn’t alone in his walking habit. Johann Sebastian Bach once walked 200 miles to Lübeck to study organ from Dietrich Buxtehude. Four months later, he walked the 200 miles back, filled with wonder and awe at all the new things he’d learned.

Gustav Mahler, too, insisted on strolling for several hours where he could, to help him think through the vast and mammoth works he was writing.

Erik Satie's entry is one of my favorites in Daily Rituals. He lived about 7 miles outside of Paris and, though there was a train, opted daily to walk into the city for performances and meetings. Mason Currey quotes Satie's biographer Pierre-Daniel Templier, who noted that Satie would take hours to make the trip, always stopping at favorite café’s along the way, and then continue on his way, “… taking small steps, his umbrella held tight under his arm. When talking he would stop, bend one knee a little, adjust his pince-nez and place his fist on his lap. The he would take off once more with small deliberate steps." After a long night he would take the train back home, or, if he missed it, would simply walk back home. The next morning, the routine would start again.

So frequent were Satie's long walks, that a theory arose that the pacing and rhythmic quality of Satie’s music was a directly related to his endless wandering.

Beethoven was arguably the most famous walker of the classical composers. He was, in his day, perhaps as famous for his multi-hour vigorous laps around the city of Vienna and his jaunts off into the woods, as he was for being taciturn and eccentric. Every day after lunch, like clockwork, he would tuck a pencil and notebook into one of his coat pockets, and take off for a brisk-paced stroll.

The result? Well, his Symphony No. 6, titled Pastoral, I think makes the point nicely.

WILL WALKING MAKE ME THE NEXT BEETHOVEN?

No. Sorry.

Firstly, Beethoven (and Brahms, and Mahler, and Bach, and Satie) lived in a non-automotive society. And even though there were horses, carriages, and even trains, most people couldn’t afford that mode of transport and simply got around by walking. You could argue that walking was the number one way to get around in the 19th century; everyone was doing it! And yet, for all the walking everyone else was doing, there was only one Mahler, and one Beethoven, and one Brahms.

Secondly, as Mr. Rogers might say, you’re perfect "just as you are."

That being said, however, there is scientific evidence that walking and creativity are linked. And so while walking might not make you the next Beethoven, it might help you tap into the next you.

THE SCIENCE

Anecdotally the connection between walking and creativity are about as well known as the connectivity between aching bones and inclement weather.

But can they be scientifically proven to be related?

Creative output increased by an average of 60% when the person was walking, according to the study.
May Wong, Stanford University News, 2014

A 2014 study out of Stanford University suggests that, likely, yes.

This study took 176 college students and asked them to participate in tasks and experiments commonly used by psychologists to gauge creativity. Three of the experiments focused on 'divergent thinking' tasks (participants were asked to find alternative uses for common items), and a final experiment focused on "people's ability to generate complex analogies to prompt phrases."

Participants were invited to complete these tasks while sitting in a room, while sitting outdoors, while walking outdoors, and while walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall.

In the divergent thinking tasks, the study found that the "overwhelming majority of people were more creative while walking than sitting... The creative output increased by an average of 60% when the person was walking."

Interestingly, this was true regardless of walking outdoors or indoors on a treadmill. The walking itself was the key.

Meanwhile, in the analogy experiments, "100% of those who walked outside were able to generate at least one high-quality, novel analogy compared to 50% of those seated inside."

So that's promising.

A follow up study from researches at the University of Graz, published in Scientific Reports in July 2020, took the question a step further. They asked: could it be that the walking wasn't what boosted creativity, but rather that frequent walks were leading to greater happiness, and the subsequent greater happiness led to a greater creativity?

The results pointed to... no!

"The correlations between activity, creativity and moods were slight," writes Gretchen Reynolds in her 2021 New York Times review of the study. "People could walk often and be quite creative but not especially happy, suggesting that it was not improved moods that influenced the creativity. It was moving."

Walking often moves us past the "what" of our life into the more elusive "why."
Julia Cameron, 'Walking in this World'

What does this all mean? Does walking really equal more creativity? The answer is... perhaps! The 2020 study, writes Reynolds, "cannot tell us if being more active directly causes us to be more creative, only that [walking and creativity] are linked."

In other words, it's not definite (rare that anything ever is) that a walk will help you finish that project smoking on the back-burner. But, it also certainly won't hurt.

MY RESULTS

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything for the station. What with the stress of Thanksgiving and the holidays and the start of a new year, umbrellaed under ‘the pandemic’, I’ve been a sad fisherman angling for fish in a puddle when it comes to creative output.

Not for a lack of trying. There have been ideas, now and again. There was, for example, the idea to write about the link between creativity and walking.

But I simply didn’t feel terribly creative.

After a few gentle prods from colleagues to maybe start pulling my weight again, I knew it was time to come out of the funk and get back to it. And so I read some articles that indicated that, yes, indeed, creativity and walking are heavily linked, and I began to walk. Just 20 minutes or so, a few times a week.

Did it work?

Well… you’ve made it to the end of the article - you tell me!

Solvitur ambulando ("It is solved by walking")
St Augustine