Go wander, how meandering in the outdoors can enhance creativity


Originally posted on The Ooomf Blog
Re-published on Medium
Wandering for clarity is a secret of the literary greats. Writers such as Rousseau, Dickens, and romantic poets such as William Blake and John Clare, all used wandering to clarify their thoughts. It seemed to de-stress their minds and gave them an opportunity to think up great ideas.Dickens supposedly logged in 20 miles every day.

Dickens’s walks served him in two ways. On one level, they were fact-finding missions during which he recorded with his keen eye the teeming urban landscapes whose descriptions were his stock-in-trade…But Dickens’s walks played another, more important role in his life. They were, in a sense, acts of self-preservation… [he] found composition to be hard, painful work. The hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously, and walking served as a kind of safety valve. — Frisky as the Dickens

I decided to give it a go myself. Everyday for the past two weeks, when my thoughts weren’t flowing, I got up and left. I would prance around the neighborhood or leave for a stroll in the park.

It works! My thoughts began to “flow” again. It was the perfect get-away to plan my next step.

There was something about leaving my desk and being outside that gave my troubles some context. I wanted to understand why this happens.

Trees, grass, and plants.


Fertile Green

When we take a break from our desk and wander outside we’re bound to see at least one tree. Occasionally a longer stroll will lead you to a grassy landscape. Seeing nature’s green is reassuring and it’s calming.

And it also spurs creativity.

German and U.S. researchers tested the impact of viewing fertile green colours on creative performance. Participants in the study were either shown the colour green, white, red, gray or blue. After a brief glimpse they were asked to complete a creative task.

For example, in one task participants were asked to list as many creative ways to use a tin can.

In another, participants were asked to list as many “round things” they could think of.

Their data revealed a strong correlation: participants who were shown a brief glimpse of green had increased levels of creative performance.

Basically, those who saw green came up with more interesting ways to use a tin can and included absurdly round things in their list.

Seeing green triggered participants to find creative solutions. They began to think “outside of the box”.

The colours that poets and writers “took in” on their walks helped enhance creativity.

And apparently so did their movement:

When we wander our body lacks rigidity.

When we go for a saunter we let our arms and legs move freely. Dickens was described to have a “swinging gait.”

Theories of creative thinking and creative intelligence have actually described the concept of creativity as being fluid. Creativity is something that goes with the flow.

Researchers at Stanford and Tufts wanted to see who had enhanced creativity: those that moved their bodies in a fluid way or those that moved in a rigid way?

To test this, they had two sets of participants: one set moved their arms in a fluid motion and the other in a rigid motion. After the exercise participants answered a set of questions.

For example: list as many uses for a newspaper, or list as many vehicles you can think of.

The participants that moved their arms in a fluid way showed enhanced creativity. For instance, one of these participants included “camel” in their list of vehicles.

When we stroll, not only do our arms, but our whole body moves with a fluid rhythm. The movement that we liken to creativity also amps it up. In addition to moving with ease there is another subtle distinction to wandering, which is:

Idle time

A wander is quite different than simply walking to a destination. When we wander, there is no particular destination in mind. There is nothing to be achieved/accomplished/bought.

A meander gives us a moment to be idle. Essayist and cartoonist, Tim Kreider writes,

The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. –The Busy Trap

Being idle is an opportunity to have a eureka moment.

Don’t worry about becoming lazy. Noble prize winning author, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus, has some reassuring words:

Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre.

Indulge in the pleasures of simply doing nothing. There is such a thing as powerful meaninglessness. Go for stroll and give yourself a chance at creative inspiration.

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