Marily Oppezzo: How Can Taking A Walk Spark Creative Ideas?

May 10, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 11:16 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Jumpstarting Creativity.

About Marily Oppezzo's TED Talk

If you're experiencing a creative block or feeling uninspired, Marily Oppezzo has a solution: take a walk. She explains how walking helps us to get out of our heads and generate out-of-the-box ideas.

About Marily Oppezzo

Marily Oppezzo is a behavioral and learning scientist. She completed her PhD in educational psychology at Stanford in 2013. She also is a registered dietitian and has her Master's of nutritional science from San Jose State University.

She completed her dietetic internship at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, and currently consults as a sports dietitian for Stanford's Runsafe program. Her research interests leverage her interdisciplinary training, with a focus on how to get people to change and improve their health and well-being.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - ideas about jump-starting creativity. And whether you're creating a masterpiece or just brainstorming ideas for work, Marily Oppezzo says there's one practical way to inspire creative thinking - take a walk. Marily's a behavioral and learning scientist at Stanford. And she spoke about her idea from the TED stage.


MARILY OPPEZZO: So the creative process - you know this - from the first idea to the final product is a long process. It's super iterative, lots of refinement, blood, sweat, tears and years. And we're not saying you're going to go out for a walk and come back with the Sistine Chapel in your left hand, right?

So what frame of the creative process did we focus on? Just this first part - just brainstorming, coming up with a new idea. So we actually ran four studies with a variety of people. You were either walking indoors or outdoors. All of these studies found the same conclusion. I'm only going to tell you about one of them today.

So one of the tests we use for creativity was alternate uses. And this test - you have four minutes, and your job is to come up with as many other ways to use common everyday objects as you can think of. So for example, what else would you do with a key other than to use it for opening up a lock? So people came up with many ideas as they could. And we had to decide - is this creative or not?

So the definition of creativity that a lot of people go with is appropriate novelty. So for something to be appropriate, it has to be realistic. So unfortunately, you can't use a key as an eyeball. Boo. But novel is the second thing - is that nobody had to have said it. So for us, it had to be appropriate first. And then for novelty, nobody else in the entire population that we surveyed could have said it.

So you might think - you could use a key to scratch somebody's car. But if somebody else said that, you didn't get credit for it. Neither of you did. However, only one person said this - if you were dying and it were a murder mystery, and you had to carve the name of the murderer into the ground with your dying words. So one person said this. And it's a creative idea 'cause it's appropriate and it's novel.

So you either did this test and came up with ideas while you were seated or while you were walking on a treadmill. They did the test twice with different objects. Three groups - the first group sat first and then sat again for the second test. The second group sat first and then did the second test while walking on a treadmill. The third group - and this is interesting - they walked on the treadmill first and then they sat.

OK. So the two groups that sat together for the first test, they looked pretty similar to each other. And they averaged about 20 creative ideas per person. The group that was walking on the treadmill did almost twice as well. So remember; they took the test twice. The people who sat twice for that second test, they didn't get any better. Practice didn't help.

But these same people who were sitting and then went on the treadmill got a boost from walking. Here's the interesting thing. The people who were walking on the treadmill still had a residue effect of the walking. And they were still creative afterwards. So the implication of this is that you should go for a walk before your next big meeting and just start brainstorming right away.

So we have five tips for you that will help make this the best effect possible. So first, you want to pick a problem or a topic to brainstorm. So this is not the shower effect. This is not when you're in the shower and, all of a sudden, a new idea pops out of the shampoo bottle. This is something you're thinking about ahead of time. And they're intentionally thinking about brainstorming a different perspective on the walk. Secondly, I get asked this a lot. Is this OK while running? Well, the answer for me is that if I were running, the only new idea I would have would be to stop running. So...


OPPEZZO: But if running for you is a comfortable pace, good. So it turns out whatever physical activity is not taking a lot of attention - so just walking at a comfortable pace is a good choice. Also, you want to come up with as many ideas as you can. So one key of creativity is to not lock on that first idea. Keep coming up with new ones until you pick one or two to pursue.

You might worry that you don't want to write them down because what if you will forget them? So the idea here is to speak them. Everybody was speaking their new ideas. So you can put your headphones on and record through your phone, and then just pretend you're having a creative conversation - right? - 'cause the act of writing your idea down is already a filter. You're going to be like - is this good enough to write down? - and then you write it down. So just speak as many as you can and record them, and think about them later.

And finally, don't do this forever, right? If you're on the walk and that idea's not coming to you, come back to it later at another time. Thank you.


RAZ: That's Marily Oppezzo. She's an instructor of medicine at Stanford University. To find out more about Marily, go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.