The one easy trick that will sharpen your decision-making

It's been used by everyone from philosophers to business leaders — and Stanford research shows it really makes a difference.

Every month, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Executive Education and Wharton's Center for Leadership and Change Management come together to release a "nano tool" that hones in on small changes you can make to improve your performance and leadership abilities. Their September suggestion highlights the positive impact — and widespread usage amongst successful people — of walking while making difficult decisions or thinking through complex problems.


Walking has a long history as a regular habit of successful, influential people — Queen Elizabeth I and Charles Dickens both used to take a walk every day, and Aristotle was famous for conducting his lectures, pupils in tow, while on the move. These figures have taken their walks for myriad reasons — to improve health with movement and fresh air, to find peace and solitude or to observe nature or cityscapes. There's no shortage of good reasons to go for a walk.

But Wharton's nano tool focuses on a particular one, and it's a benefit that is encouraging business leaders like "the CEOs of LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook" to start walking, as well: Walking increases your creativity, and can "improve business outcomes" by helping you "come up with more and better ideas and enhanc[ed] decision making and problem solving."

Research backs this up. Wharton's nano tool is based on a 2017 Stanford University study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. The study found that walking encouraged "divergent thinking," whether the walking occurred before participants were thinking through a question or while they were thinking it through. Divergent thinking can be understood as a psychological definition of what we often refer to as creativity: It indicates a pattern of thought that brings original ideas to a question or problem.

That's a great mental state to encourage if you want to find novel, successful solutions to stressful and difficult problems. So, next time you are puzzling through a complex issue that needs a special creative touch, go for a walk. You may be surprised by the ideas you come up with.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.