Want to think more creatively? Move your body, and move away from your emotional baseline—in any direction.
Humans have a complicated relationship with walking. This wasn’t always so. British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey identified marks of bipedalism dating back 3.7 million years in Tanzania—it’s an old endeavor indeed. The story of our uprightness was, for most of history, one of survival and thriving. Today the tale of our peculiar relationship to gravity is being written much differently.
Bipedalism conferred onto us two distinct advantages. First, it helped us gaze longer into the landscape than quadrupeds, who must rely on mountaintops and trees to acquire such spatial information. This helped us quickly identify prey and predator, both of our species and others. Our reaction time increased.
Secondly, and more importantly for this story, the ability to walk turned us into efficient communicators. As a social animal the extra distance offered by bipedalism let us signal across large expanses. Creative means of communication developed. Walking and creativity developed together.
Was walking considered a creative endeavor, however? Utilitarian, definitely. Every facet of our existence relied on an ability to travel long distances (as well as, in the early days of agriculture, walk around tending to crops). Today nomadism is romanticized, but for millions of years it was necessary for survival.
The more sedentary the world has become, the more the primitive act of walking is romanticized. Gardens erected by 17th-century British aristocracy were our introduction to what would become public parks—specific locations of recreation and retreat to spend hours meandering through. To celebrate, poets and thinkers poured accolades on our simplest and most profound example of biomechanics.
Modern activities for creative problem solving include daydreaming, sleep, and cardiovascular exercise. Walking appears to be a more benign solution, with the environment often being touted as the catalyst for ingenuity. Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz wanted to know if the brain-body connection offered by walking alone is enough to kickstart creative juices. Their answer is yes.
The team conducted four experiments to better understand how walking affects creative thinking, with two tests administered to participants. Guilford’s alternate uses (GUA) test is used to score on levels of originality, flexibility, fluency, and elaboration, while the compound remote associated (CRA) test was developed by social psychologist Martha Mednick in 1962 to score creative potential.
In the first experiment participants completed the two tests while seated and then while walking on a treadmill (to factor for environmental influence). In the next they were tested while seated and then walking, walking and then seated, and seated twice. In the third experiment they walked outdoors, and in the fourth a variety of situations were tested: sitting inside, walking on a treadmill, walking outside, or being rolled around on a wheelchair outdoors.
While reams of research exist on the topic related to cardiovascular performance, the Stanford team wanted to know if our simplest form of locomotion was similarly influential. To counter previous research, they write:
Asking people to take a 30-min run to improve their subsequent seated creativity would be an unhappy prescription for many people. Thus, the current research examined the more practical strategy of taking a short walk.
Their assessment? Walking encourages creativity. In three of the alternate uses studies the numbers were profound: 81%, 88%, and 100% of participants were more creative walking than sitting, including on the treadmill. They believe this research not only has an important effect on workplace environments, but should be considered much earlier in life:
While schools are cutting back on physical education in favor of seated academics, the neglect of the body in favor of the mind ignores their tight interdependence, as demonstrated here.
How could walking at a regulated pace on a machine while facing a white wall promote creativity? The researchers believe that a “complex causal pathway” exists between the physiology of walking and proximal cognitive processes.
While exercise is perceived to be inspirational, they believe less strenuous activity like walking also opens up creative pathways between body and brain. Performing beyond your “natural stride” is cognitively demanding, they write, while one’s natural gait allows their brain’s default mode network to kick in.
They admit that environment does matter in certain situations, however. Novelty is important both as inspiration and distraction. Where you walk influences creative potential, though only if you become caught in surrounding circumstances:
Walking outdoors on a busy campus did not significantly increase appropriate novelty compared with walking indoors, although the more varied stimulation did appear to increase novelty. This suggests that walking may be effective in many locations that do not have acute distractions.
As movement is a natural mood enhancer, a link between positive mood and divergent thinking may play a role in these scores. The authors note that negative moods have also been shown to increase creativity as well, so it appears that any movement away from an emotional baseline is useful for creative thinking.
The exact causes as to why walking inspire creativity are still unknown, though this study puts forward a number of potential reasons. Most important, the authors conclude, is that we move. Data might be mixed but anecdotes and test scores are not.
In her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit believes modern walking culture was initiated as a response to the repetitive mechanisms demanded of our bodies during the Industrial Revolution. There’s a huge creative difference between building a car and repeatedly constructing one cog in the assembly line of cars. Walking today might be a continued form of resistance to “the postindustrial, postmodern loss of space, time, and embodiment.”
Which is a self-fulfilling prophecy in an age of screens demanding constant attention. Does walking while staring at your palm affect creativity? Perhaps the Stanford team can tackle this question next. Until then, put down the device and hit the ground, even if for a block. Your brain will thank you for it.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Add to playlist! Stanford University posts its Ho Center for Buddhist Studies series of talks on YouTube.
A little while back, we published exciting news of a free online course in Buddhism offered by Harvard University. The archived course introduces Buddhist beliefs to novices, and illumines them for practitioners. Now the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University has a way to carry on your self-education: it's made its expansive series of talks on Buddhism available on YouTube.
The 35 Stanford videos posted so far — the earliest of which date back about a year — feature lectures from a range of experts, including active practitioners and scholars. It’s an ongoing series, too, with a full schedule of talks planned for 2017.
If the Harvard curriculum is a great way to become familiar with Buddhism, the Stanford course goes a bit wider, with speakers discussing the religion from a range of perspectives. There are talks on Buddhist wisdom, recent historic revelations, discussions of complex concepts, and what it’s like to bring the religion to new geographic areas.
The most recently posted talk is by Christian K. Wedemeyer, an associate professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His talk is called “Rhetorics of Solidarity in Mahāyāna Sūtra Literature, or 'You're So Vain, I Bet You Think This Sūtra is About You’.”
(BUDDHIST STUDIES AT STANFORD)
A “needs statement” is the core element and guiding force for such an innovative endeavor, says Stanford Professor Paul Yock.
Even in the 21st century, where advanced technology is commonplace and breakthroughs appear on an almost daily basis, fulfilling healthcare and other needs remains difficult. In the United States alone, 75,000 deaths occur each year due to the ineffective or inefficient delivery of healthcare. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, just meeting the basics of healthcare like prenatal care or vaccination, seems nearly impossible.
I myself was privy to children dying of malaria, in a village in Malawi, Africa, where I was an aid worker just seven years ago. Free treatment was available. But the poor, rural villagers didn’t have money or transportation to get their children to the clinic for treatment, which was miles away on poorly maintained dirt roads. So I’ve witnessed firsthand how good efforts sometimes fall short.
One film called The Cola Road outlines an innovative approach by knowing all the ins and outs of the situation, including the need. Here, filmmaker Claire Ward documents the problem of getting medicines to poor, isolated communities in rural Zambia, and one inventive plan to use soda delivery men as couriers, as cola is ubiquitous in the sub-Saharan region.
Another issue is cost savings. People are living far older than ever before, and the tremendous tidal wave of aging baby boomers is set to bankrupt the healthcare systems of many nations around the world. The question some luminaries are asking is how to approach such challenges in a cost-effective way.
Designs which perfectly suit the need and are cost-effective are those which are generally adopted.
Paul Yock has developed a standardized plan for innovation keeping all the ins and outs in mind. Yock is a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and is also the founder and director of the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign. He says this formalized method is how he and colleagues teach students to approach innovation. Three hundred fellows, researchers, and students attend the center each year. For most entrepreneurs, time is short, funding threadbare, and the need to communicate what’s at stake essential to gaining a foothold and, eventually, scaling up.
Yock places great emphasis on creating a “need criteria” before a prototype is developed. The starting point should be necessity, rather than technology. It’s easy to say start with the hole and fill it, or find a place that is lagging and speed it up. When engineers get carried away with ideas, innovation may come, but need often takes a backseat. Yock calls this the “ready-fire-aim” approach.
In the end, the invention or method can become superfluous, be developed in a wasteful manner, or fall flat. Since it can take $80 million to get new healthcare technologies to market, and five to seven years to develop, innovators must be careful in how they pursue the development process.
According to Yock, immersing yourself in the problem is the first and most crucial step. All others radiate out from it. Once the essential problem is well understood, a process of innovation can begin. According to Yock, the need must be identified and translated into a single sentence which perfectly crystalizes it.
This should include what the problem is, who is affected, and what the desirable outcome may be. He calls this a “need statement.” It acts as sort of the thesis for the whole thing. He says, “The purpose of the need statement is to frame the problem in a way that makes it actionable for the innovator.” The next stage is to find out who the stakeholders are, learn their perspectives, and what solutions have been attempted. This allows the innovator to probe deeper and should help put meat on the bones of a novel solution.
Yock says a “needs criteria” is required for innovation, or else time and resources can easily be squandered.
Finally, innovators should perceive their plan from a business standpoint. Can they acquire sufficient funding to test this new technology? If it isn’t viable businesswise, the idea is unlikely to get past the proof-of-concept stage. That doesn’t mean giving up a radical idea that can change the world. But it does mean getting comfortable with the practicalities of the situation. The innovator should keep in mind how much it’s going to cost to purchase and use. Those technologies that cut costs are more likely to be adopted. Here, the most important aspects should be communicated so that it has the best chance of widespread clinical use.
To illustrate his process, Yock cites the Smart Needle as an example. He said that early in his practice, he found that when drawing blood, with some patients, it was difficult to find the vein. By equipping the needle with the right technology, in this case a micro-Doppler transducer, he was able to find a patient’s vein without any problem. Unfortunately, he did not develop a need statement at the time. Once he invented the Smart Needle, Yock realized he’d made a mistake. While standard needles were cheap, Smart Needles came at a higher cost.
They were useful in the ICU he said. Outside of it though, they were hardly adopted. Another issue: he hadn’t accounted for the fact that those who draw blood vary in levels of expertise. Training wasted a lot of time and resources. That sent them back to the drawing board. “We spent millions of dollars and the product didn’t get out until years later,” he said.
For those entrepreneurs developing an idea on a shoestring budget, such missteps might spell the end. Yock believes that better understanding the need would have forced him to streamline the process, making the Smart Needle more successful at its initial launch. By really flushing out the need an innovation is addressing and all the aspects surrounding it, clinical, technical, and business decisions are shaped, and waste is winnowed.
To learn more about Prof. Yock and his work click here:
Stanford scientists create technology that could help severely paralyzed people communicate.
The infinite monkey theorem states that given enough monkeys and time, even while typing randomly, sooner or later the monkeys will type up the full works of Shakespeare and pretty much everything else ever written. This fun idea saw a partial incarnation courtesy of scientists at Stanford University who released a new study, promisingly titled "A Nonhuman Primate Brain–Computer Typing Interface". They didn't create a play-writing genius monkey, but they did get monkeys to type Shakespeare. Oh, and they typed with their minds.
Are these monkeys now speaking English? No. But the technology being researched is quite exciting. Its stated goal is to help very paralyzed people communicate.
The technology that was developed by Stanford's Professor Krishna Shenoy and postdoctoral scholar Paul Nuyujukian reads brain signals in order to drive a cursor that's moving over a keyboard.
The two monkeys studied were first taught to point to patterns of on-screen yellow and green dots, which flashed to spell out specific letters. Then the monkeys were outfitted with electrode implants in their brains (in the part that controls movement). The subjects were then shown patterns of letters (flashing dots), which spelled out texts from "Hamlet" and passages from New York Times.
The arrays were able to measure corresponding brain activity each time a monkey thought of the where to point its arm, which it previously learned to point to the next letter to spell. The monkeys were able to achieve typing speeds of 12 words per minute, three times the highest brain-based typing rate ever.
“Our results demonstrate that this interface may have great promise for use in
people,” said Nuyujukian. “It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful
Being able to read brain signals directly would help overcome a number of challenges presented by current typing technologies for the disabled. Stephen Hawking, for example, couldn't use eye-tracking software because of his drooping eyelids.
The new tech is now moving to a clinical trial, with the scientists sounding confident.
“The interface we tested is exactly what a human would use,” said Nuyujukian, “What we had never quantified before was the typing rate that could be achieved.”
While they are excited about the typing rate achieved by the monkeys, they think that humans would probably type somewhat slower.
Job automation won't be as bad as we think, so we need to learn how to stop working and prepare so we're not dragged into the future kicking and screaming.
The average employed American works about nine hours a day, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Twice as many of them are unhappy at work than happy. The commute to and from work, which is also considered work, only deepens the misery. That’s why most of us are excited by the prospect of robots taking over the job market in the near future – even if we’re scared about being left jobless.
That fear is justified. IT research firm Gartner predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025. Our own Ray Kurzweil backs that up by insisting that robots will reach human levels of intelligence by 2029. Both projects are stark, and difficult to verify given the inconsistent advancement of artificial intelligence, as we’ve told you before. But the technology continues to advance in that direction, so some day in the near-ish future you should expect a machine to take over your job. IT expert Andrew MacAfee explains how – even for highly skilled workers:
As McAfee points out, we used to think that automating jobs would create a permanent underclass of unskilled cheap labor. Recent advancements in AI and deep learning are proving that to not be the case. It’s now simply a matter of time before a robot takes your job. If you want to prepare for that, you need to redefine what work means to you.
Right now, work signifies different things to different people. Economically speaking, work is a means of earning and distributing purchasing power. Personally speaking, work is a major source of identity, purpose, and even self-fulfillment. In a post-work world, work will be none of these things. Without work to give us meaning, we might drive ourselves nuts. In fact, if we don’t have work in our lives, we already drive ourselves nuts. 20 percent of Americans who’ve been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, according to this Gallup poll. That’s double the rate for working Americans. The Atlantic found even more research, including reports that suggest “the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time.”
Combine that self-torture with our cultural tendencies to demonize people who avoid work and we’ve got a society that has no idea how not to work. “People who avoid work are viewed as parasites and leeches,” John Danaher of National University of Ireland told The Atlantic. “Perhaps as a result of this cultural attitude, for most people, self-esteem and identity are tied up intricately with their job, or lack of job.”
That’s only going to get worse when robots do all the work.
As The Guardian reports, we’re not good at coping with that now:
Labour [sic] markets have coped [with robotic automation] the only way they are able: workers needing jobs have little option but to accept dismally low wages. Bosses shrug and use people to do jobs that could, if necessary, be done by machines. Big retailers and delivery firms feel less pressure to turn their warehouses over to robots when there are long queues of people willing to move boxes around for low pay. Law offices put off plans to invest in sophisticated document scanning and analysis technology because legal assistants are a dime a dozen. People continue to staff checkout counters when machines would often, if not always, be just as good. Ironically, the first symptoms of a dawning era of technological abundance are to be found in the growth of low-wage, low-productivity employment.
James Manyika of The White House Global Development Council agrees, and explained the nuts and bolts of it to us here:
As a society, we need to figure out how to live without work – not just for our sanity and self-esteem, but for the future of our species. There are tons of benefits to being a post-work society. The biggest immediate benefit is that we can reinvest the time we spend at work toward pursuits that make us happier. According to research out of Stanford, families that spend more time together experience a higher degree of happiness and life satisfaction that people who don’t. “Researchers [at Harvard] have found that having close relationships is the number-one predictor of happiness, and the social connections that a work-free world might enable could well displace the aimlessness that so many futurists predict,” The Atlantic reports.
Without work, we could finally fix our educational system and make it work for every single child. “The primary purpose of the educational system is to teach people to work. I don’t think anybody would want to put our kids through what we put our kids through now,” Gray told The Atlantic. Education may become a one-on-one approach that’s a best fit for every child instead of a factory pumping out future workers.
We could also make strides to end income inequality. Without work to define and distribute income, it could be distributed by the state “through the payment of a basic income, for instance, or direct public provision of services such as education, healthcare and housing. Or, perhaps, everyone could be given a capital allotment at birth.,” The Guardian speculates.
Best of all, we can find deeper, meaningful ways of contributing to the world around us. “If greater numbers of people were using their leisure to run the country, that would give people a sense of purpose,” Randolph Trumbach of Baruch College told The Atlantic.
But all of those options will only be possible if we figure out how to make them happen. And if we’re going to do that we need to do it now, before we’re thrust into it. If we don’t, “pushing people out of work will simply redirect the flow of income from workers to firm-owners: the rich will get richer,” as The Guardian puts it.
In a post-work world, that outcome might spell disaster.