Why is it that we always seem to do our best thinking when we take a step back from our daily life? Whether it’s a long walk around the block, spending time in nature, a long shower, a conversation with a close friend, or just writing down your thoughts on a piece of paper, we all have our best methods that seem to work for coming up with creative solutions to problems.
Taking a Walk Around the Block
One tried and true method that seems to work for a lot of people for clearing their heads is just putting on a good pair of walking shoes and heading out for a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Personally, I know a lot of my best creative thinking has been done when I grab a pair of headphones and take the dog for a bit of exercise. But why does this work?
The New Yorker had a good take on it in their article “Why Walking Helps Us Think.”
When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.Ferris Jabr, The New Yorker, September 3, 2014
Now when you go for a walk, don’t think of it as just a way to get a little bit of exercise – consider that you’re changing your brain’s chemistry in a way that might just help you find a solution to your problems.
Spending Time in Nature
Do you consider yourself an ‘outdoorsy’ type of person? Maybe staring out at a vast body of water helps keep you grounded. Maybe hearing nothing but the sounds of the birds and animals and running water in the wilderness helps take you away from the hustle and bustle of city life? There’s something magical in leaving the world we live in for a while and spending time in nature, but what is it about nature that helps us solve our problems?
An article in the Greater Good Magazine talks about this exact phenomenon:
This phenomenon may be due to differences in brain activation when viewing natural scenes versus more built-up scenes—even for those who normally live in an urban environment. In a recent study conducted by Peter Aspinall at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and colleagues, participants who had their brains monitored continuously using mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) while they walked through an urban green space had brain EEG readings indicating lower frustration, engagement, and arousal, and higher meditation levels while in the green area, and higher engagement levels when moving out of the green area. This lower engagement and arousal may be what allows for attention restoration, encouraging a more open, meditative mindset.Jill Suttie, Greater Good Magazine, March 2, 2016
It’s this kind of brain activity—sometimes referred to as “the brain default network”—that is tied to creative thinking, says Strayer.
Among the other positive effects of nature called out in this article are a decrease in stress levels, an increase in happiness, kindness and generosity, and a better sense of “feeling alive.” It sounds like a trip to nature could do the whole world a bit of good right now.
Taking a Shower
It’s happened to all of us – we scratch our heads trying to find the solution to some issues that are vexing us all day, and then as soon as we get into the shower it becomes absolutely clear what needs to be done. My wife swears this is the absolute best place for her to think, and I can agree with her based on the countless times I’ve heard her calling out to me to excitedly explain how she’s figured everything out. But what is it about the shower that helps us focus better? According to an article by Wired:
The problem gets removed from the mental ruts and mingles with other ideas you’re carrying in your head. Eventually, it finds one—or several—that click together and rise up like Voltron into a solution. This is called fixation forgetting. Shower thoughts aren’t always attached to a specific problem, but fixation forgetting still helps psychologists like Kounios understand those random cocktails of revelation. It’s not clear how your brain decides which are the right connections, but it’s obvious that the farther your brain can roam, the better. Research has shown that your brain builds bigger creative webs when you’re in a positive mood. This makes sense, because when you’re anxious you’re less likely to take a chance on creativity. Even when resting or taking a break, anxious brains tend to obsess on linear solutions.Nick Stockton, Wired, May 14, 2008
The next time you’re having trouble trying to find a good solution to your problem, maybe it’s time to just take a long shower? Who knows what creative ways you will come up with to solve it?
Talking it Out or Writing it Down
Sometimes you just need to explain what you’re going through in your head, and it seems to work best when there is someone there listening, or you take the time to write it down so you can see more clearly what the problem is. Are you one of those who talk at someone on occasion, not to get a conversation going but to just get your thoughts out loud? Have you noticed that when you talk it out or write it down, it helps you connect the dots and find the solution, even without any input from anyone else?
There’s a lot of value in putting into words the problem that you’re dealing with, and it may just help you figure out new ways to solve your problem. In fact, there’s a whole career path that people enter into that specializes in just listening and asking the right questions to get you to think of a solution yourself. They’re called therapists, but you don’t have to shell out money to get the same results. An article by the New York Times explains the science behind this:
When you are feeling very intense feelings — especially fear, aggression or anxiety — your amygdala is running the show. This is the part of the brain that, among other things, handles your fight or flight response. It is the job of the amygdala, and your limbic system as a whole, to figure out if something is a threat, devise a response to that threat if necessary, and store the information in your memory so you can recognize the threat later. When you get stressed or overwhelmed, this part of your brain can take control and even override more logical thought processes.Eric Ravenscroft, The New York Times, April 3, 2020
Research from U.C.L.A. suggests that putting your feelings into words — a process called “affect labeling” — can diminish the response of the amygdala when you encounter things that are upsetting. This is how, over time, you can become less stressed over something that bothers you. For example, if you got in a car accident, even being in a car immediately afterward could overwhelm you emotionally. But as you talk through your experience, put your feelings into words and process what happened, you can get back in the car without having the same emotional reaction.
Research from Southern Methodist University suggested that writing about traumatic experiences or undergoing talk therapy had a positive impact on a patient’s health and immune system. The study argues that holding back thoughts and emotions is stressful. You have the negative feelings either way, but you have to work to repress them. That can tax the brain and body, making you more susceptible to getting sick or just feeling awful.
So maybe like the steam engines of old, you just need to vent out some of the hot air for a little while in order to allow you to think more clearly. After all, it’s hard to see clearly when everything is clouded by the stresses of your life.
What’s Your Favorite?
While there are a slew of ways we can deal with problems in our life, or in our work, some of them work better than the others for certain people. What ways have you found to best help you focus, de-stress, and come up with creative solutions? I’m interested in knowing.
For me, the best thinking is always done when I mow the lawn. Something about being outside, getting exercise and completing a task that involves no thinking whatsoever just helps me figure out all the problems I’m going through at any given point, especially those involved with creative writing.
What’s your method of choice?