Movement Facilitates Creative Thinking

Sample drawings from Saggar et al study on creative thinking and cerebellum activity

A new Pictionary-based Stanford study by Saggar et al has shown that creative thinking is facilitated by activity in the cerebellum (the movement coordination part of the brain) and hampered by activity in the prefrontal cortex (the executive function part of the brain associated with planning, organization and management).

Subjects were given 30 seconds to depict each of several action words by drawing pictures of them while inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine to monitor brain activity.  They were also asked to draw zigzag lines to observe differences in fine motor activity without a creative component.

When words were difficult to draw, there was more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with attention and evaluation.  Independently-rated creativity scores were higher with low activity in the prefrontal cortex and high activity in the cerebellum.

Saggar stated, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”

Stanford professor Michel Serres hikes the Dish on a regular basis.

Stanford professor Michel Serres hikes the Dish on a regular basis.

This study may shed neurobiological light on an interesting finding from another Stanford study by Oppezzo and Schwartz published in April 2014 that walking compared to sitting more than doubles creative inspiration, whether out in nature or indoors facing a wall on a treadmill.  They compared the walking conditions to sitting indoors facing a wall or sitting outdoors while being pushed in a wheelchair.  They also compared various combinations and sequences of walking and sitting.

While walking or sitting, 176 subjects were given four minutes to solve “divergent thinking” problems—taking an object and coming up with innovative yet appropriate alternative uses for it.  Creative brainstorming was 60% greater when walking.

In another test, they were asked to come up with meaningful analogies to phrases such as “a robbed safe”.  100% of subjects in the walking condition were able to come up with appropriate analogies, whereas only 50% of the subjects in the sitting condition were able to do so.

The researchers wonder whether other forms of mild physical activity that does not necessitate focused concentration for execution (such as loosely-structured creative movement), would lead to the same benefits.  They also suggested that movement may facilitate creative thought processes through improved mood states and that movement breaks throughout the day may be a good idea.


Stanford news media summaries of the two studies for the lay public can be found through the links below:
Saggar et al study on creative thinking and cerebellum activity.
Oppezzo and Schwatrz study on creative thinking and walking.

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