The Thinking Path
Software “tools for thought” can amplify your thinking, but sometimes the secret to a creative workflow is as low-tech as it gets: going for a stroll.
[This is the free edition of Adjacent Possible, a newsletter about innovation (and its discontents) from me, Steven Johnson. This post is part of a series on creative workflows that is normally only available to paid subscribers; if you’re interested in the series, I’ve included an overview of all the installments at the end of this post.]
A few years after Charles Darwin moved into Down House, the three-story home in the suburbs of London where he lived with his family for the last forty years of his life, he leased an adjoining strip of land from a neighbor and constructed a gravel path that ran alongside its periphery. Over the years he planted gardens and trees to accompany the oak grove already on the property, which he came to call “Sandwalk Grove.” Almost every day, he walked multiple loops on the path, working through the grand theory of evolution that he developed over the decades at Down House. Today, visitors to the property can retrace Darwin’s steps on what is formally called “the sandwalk,” though Darwin himself gave it another name. He called it his “thinking path.”
When I was writing Where Good Ideas Come From more than a decade ago, I ended it with a closing paragraph that was basically just a litany of enjoinders, many of which we’ve discussed in previous installments of Adjacent Possible: “cultivate hunches,” “embrace serendipity,” and so on. But the first one on the list was maybe the simplest of all: “go for a walk.” Even though Darwin was a central figure in Good Ideas—the introduction begins with an account of his first scientific insight, which occurred to him while visiting the Keeling Islands during the voyage of the Beagle—I didn’t actually mention the sandwalk path anywhere in the book. The main passage that discusses the connection between walking and creative thinking draws on a story from Henri Poincaré’s autobiography, describing a series of “pedestrian” insights he had at a crucial moment in his career as a mathematician. The case I made back then for integrating regular walks into your creative workflow was largely anecdotal; there’s a rich history of deep thinkers who claimed that their best thinking happened during their daily constitutionals. (“There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts,” Rousseau wrote. “When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.”) But since Good Ideas was published, a number of scientific studies have offered empirical proof that walking puts the mind into a more open-ended, associative state.
In 2014, a pair of Stanford researchers published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition that asked almost 200 subjects to complete a series of tasks conventionally used to measure creative thinking: coming up with alternate uses for different objects; generating novel analogies for suggested phrases. The subjects were asked to complete the tasks in a variety of settings: walking outside, walking on a treadmill, sitting indoors—even sitting in a wheelchair being pushed along a path outdoors. The results were striking: walking—either indoors or outdoors—roughly doubled the participants’ capacity for creative insight. (Interestingly, walking appeared to have a slightly negative impact on more focused, linear problem-solving.) Another study from the University of Iowa found that regular 40-minute walks seemed to improve brain connectivity in regions associated with creative thought.
One key ingredient for all of this seems to be walking at your natural pace. We all have something like a default setting for what our body and mind perceive as a stroll, where very little conscious cognitive activity is directed at controlling our muscle movements. In his classic Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman described one of his own favorite “thinking paths”:
I spend a few months each year in Berkeley, and one of my great pleasures there is a daily four-mile walk on a marked path in the hills, with a fine view of San Francisco Bay. I usually keep track of my time and have learned a fair amount about effort from doing so. I have found a speed, about 17 minutes for a mile, which I experience as a stroll. I certainly exert physical effort and burn more calories at that speed than if I sat in a recliner, but I experience no strain, no conflict, and no need to push myself. I am also able to think and work while walking at that rate. Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness… Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking, because the transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently. As I speed up, my attention is drawn with increasing frequency to the experience of walking and to the deliberate maintenance of the faster pace. My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly. At the highest speed I can sustain on the hills, about 14 minutes for a mile, I do not even try to think of anything else. In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly along the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow down. Self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.
I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon on the various outdoor hikes we do when we are here in California. I enjoy—or at least I can pretend to enjoy—a strenuous hike with significant elevation change, but I don’t find that it has much cognitive benefit, at least during the hike itself. But strolling along a meandering creek in the woods, or along the top of a ridgeline, or even just doing a loop on my neighborhood streets—all those make for wonderful “thinking paths” in my experience. The key is to be physically active but not so active that you have to think about it.
The other variation on this theme is the walking meeting. A few weeks ago, before we decamped from New York to come out to California for the summer, I had a meeting scheduled with someone in Manhattan on a lovely June morning. We’d planned to meet for coffee, but when we arrived at the coffeeshop, it was crowded and had no outdoor seats—and the person I was meeting with happened to live off of Gramercy Park, and thus had a key to the park. (For those of you who don’t know, Gramercy Park is Manhattan’s only rendition of a custom that is much more familiar to Londoners: a semi-private park only accessible to people who live next to it.) So inside of sitting down for coffee, we perambulated a few loops around Gramercy Park as we talked. (It was cool for me for another reason: I’d lived on and off in New York for more than thirty years, but never set foot in Gramercy Park before.) I’d say about half the meetings I do in Brooklyn take the form of a stroll in either Prospect Park or the Botanic Gardens, at least during the warmer months of the year.
Apparently, the walking meeting is also a Silicon Valley thing, though I haven’t experienced that personally in my visits there. (I gather Steve Jobs was a big walk-and-talker.) But one of the great, unappreciated benefits of a truly pedestrian city like New York is that you end up having conversations with people over a stroll without even going out of your way to plan them. I always love heading out to grab a coffee on a weekend morning in Brooklyn and seeing just how many people are out strolling to brunch with a friend or two, chatting away as they walk. That kind of ambulatory social interaction just spontaneously happens when you don’t have to drive to your destination. It’s a lovely ritual on its own merits, and apparently the science says it has creative benefits as well.
In Good Ideas, right after the introductory scene with Darwin in the Keeling Islands, I wrote about the fascinating research Geoffrey West and others had published on the relationship between innovation and the size of cities. The studies found that cities display a pattern of “superlinear scaling” where creativity is concerned—for instance, a city that is ten times larger than its neighbor isn’t, on average, ten times more innovative; it is actually seventeen times more innovative. The anecdotal evidence that living in a metropolitan region seems to have a disproportionately positive impact on your creative work has always been strong, but the explanation for the phenomenon has never been quite as clear. I’ve always assumed it was some combination of the agglomerative effects of having major universities and creative institutions in big cities, coupled with the coffeehouse-style culture that makes serendipitous connections more likely.
But maybe it’s just all the walking.
As I mentioned at the top, this post is a free installment in my series on creative workflows that is otherwise only available to paying subscribers. If you’re interested, I’ve included below a list of the other posts in the series to tempt you to upgrade to the paid tier. I’m also thinking about recording spoken versions of all of these and creating an audiobook version of the series that would be available to subscribers—let me know in the comments if that’s something that would be of value to some of you. (Normally the discussion threads are only available to paying subscribers but I will keep them open to all for this post.) You can upgrade to a paid subscription just by clicking this little button right here:
Designing a Workflow For Thinking: The importance of carving out time to do a “creative inventory” of how you discover and organize your ideas.
The Serendipity Engine: In which I ask a simple question: “How do you surprise yourself?”
Seven Types of Serendipity: From untidy desks to post-it notes to the brewery next door—so much of the creative process is about being open to happy accidents. But how do you make them more likely to happen?
Capturing and Colliding: How do you retain and remix ideas from other people’s minds? A 300-year-old productivity hack might be the key.
How Do You Capture Your Hunches? Big ideas invariably come into the world as fragments, hints of possibility. How do you make sure you don’t lose track of them?
The Slip-Box And The Passagenwerk: How do you turn hunches and reading notes into new ideas?
Timing It Right: Some thoughts on the temporal rhythm of a creative workflow—and a fantastic new software tool for creating timelines.
Also: I took the photo at the top of this post during my walk-and-talk in Gramercy Park in June. It is indeed lovely inside the gates of the park, but it should also be said that many of Manhattan’s other small parks that are open to the public—Union Square, Madison Square, Bryant Park—have been completely reinvented over the past decade and are absolutely spectacular venues for a thinking stroll.
Absolutely! I get my best ideas on a walk - also just bobbing up and down in reasonably shallow water at the beach. My late husband and I used to formulate plot-lines for plays this way. We'd then write them up and they would gradually evolve but the initial ideas emerged from the water! (Hat-tip to Darwin.) PS My favourite NYC Park is Bryant Park. I miss it. One day ...
Hello Steven, great article.
Could you please point me to Henri Poincaré's autobiography?