Why Do We Pace When We're Thinking?

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In movies, when a character is trying to come up with a solution to some vexing problem, he assumes a familiar pose: head down, one hand stroking the chin, anxiously pacing the room. It’s a stance associated with deep thought and the promise of the eventual “aha!” moment. Henry David Thoreau once wrote in his journal, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” 

Indeed, when we’re stuck on a problem, we often pace the floor like nervous lunatics. Why? Because, researchers say, in the midst of a brain-racking dilemma, walking seems to be the body’s way of getting the creative juices flowing.

We know exercise is good for the brain. It gets blood pumping, facilitates the creation of new connections between brain cells, and encourages the growth of new neurons. It enhances our memory and can reduce anxiety. But walking is particularly good for boosting creativity. 

“Walking opens up the free flow of ideas,” write Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University, who recently authored several studies confirming this. In their research, participants who walked showed higher scores on creativity tests than those who remained seated. In one experiment, volunteers were asked to generate analogies, which are considered a sign of creative thinking, especially if they’re complex. Subjects were given one analogy (“light bulb blowing out,” for example) and asked to create a new analogy with a similar meaning (“lightning hitting a tree,” perhaps). Of the subjects who went for a walk during the experiment, 95% could come up with at least one high-quality analogy, compared to just 50% of those who stayed seated. These people weren’t going for hour-long strolls around the park—the walks lasted between 5 and 16 minutes. And the creative effects were residual, meaning they continued even after the participant sat down. 

"Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking,” Oppezzo and Schwartz say. “We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why." 

Research also suggests that where and how we walk can influence our problem-solving skills. Want better math scores? A recent study shows we’re better at adding numbers together to make larger numbers when we’re moving up a flight of stairs, and better at subtraction when we walk downwards. The same goes for left or right motions; our addition skills are better if we’re turning right and our subtraction skills are better when we turn left. This is because these movements mimic the number scale of a vertical axis, researchers say. 

But why do we like to walk back and forth over and over? Pacing may be a subconscious way of coping with anxiety, as research suggests repetitive behavior can us help manage our stress levels when we feel lost or out of control. Or it could be that the brain loves repetition and patterns, therefore retracing one’s steps may be a way of creating a pattern to please the brain. "Pacing is a behavioral signal to tell yourself that you're too overwhelmed," psychologist Sunna Jung tells Mashable. 

The other option, of course, is you simply don’t have enough room in your cubicle to go much farther than a few paces before you have to turn around. Whatever the reason, your proclivity for pacing is a good one. "We're not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo," Oppezzo says. "But it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity."