Boost Creativity by Walking


Walking Increases Creativity“How can I get my creativity back?”

One of my patients, who has been wrestling with depression for quite a while, asked me if I could think of anything that might help give her creativity a boost.

My quick, off the cuff, reply was “go running again” (she was an avid runner before she got depressed), in part because of the clear evidence that aerobic exercise enhances cognitive function generally.

Later I thought I would do some searching in the UCSF library to see if I could find evidence based recommendations.

Imagine my surprise when the first article I ran across was all about how walking outdoors could have this effect.

“Four experiments demonstrate that walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after.

  • In Experiment 1, while seated and then when walking on a treadmill, adults completed Guilford’s alternate uses (GAU) test of creative divergent thinking … Walking increased 81% of participants’ creativity on the GAU…
  • In Experiment 2, participants completed the GAU when seated and then walking, when walking and then seated, or when seated twice. Again, walking led to higher GAU scores. Moreover, when seated after walking, participants exhibited a residual creative boost.
  • Experiment 3 generalized the prior effects to outdoor walking.
  • Experiment 4 tested the effect of walking on creative analogy generation. Participants sat inside, walked on a treadmill inside, walked outside, or were rolled outside in a wheelchair. Walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality analogies. The effects of outdoor stimulation and walking were separable.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”


Oppezzo M, Schwartz DL. Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 Jul;40(4):1142-52. doi: 10.1037/a0036577. Epub 2014 Apr 21. PubMed PMID: 24749966.

For More Information

Bipolar and Creativity

Creativity and Mood

Pace Yourself for More Manageable Moods

Pace YourselfI have been doing a lot of thinking about how to pace yourself so that you can capture some of the energy and creativity associated with being mildly energized while not getting so involved that you burn out or edge into full-fledged mania.

There’s nothing quite so exciting as entering a time of increased energy and ideas after a long stretch of time feeling uninspired. And many good and valuable things come out of such periods.

At the same time it’s quite possible to overdo it. Get too caught up in lots of ideas. Spin off new projects. Lose focus. Have trouble getting to sleep. Get frustrated with loved ones who seem to be a barrier to getting everything done. And then if you become depressed find yourself facing a mountain of tasks that are overwhelming or dealing with the consequences of mania.

The Past Predicts the Future

If you’re entering such a time in might be a very good idea to think carefully about previous periods of increased energy. How did they end? Did you overdo it and what was the consequence of overdoing it?

Wellness Recovery Action Plan is a formal way of thinking this through and developing a plan for dealing with changes in moods. Some of the ideas in the books on this subject by Mary Ellen Copeland may be worth looking over.

There can be a benefit in less detailed thinking about the past as well. In the midst of energy and excitement, remembering that it won’t last for ever, and having some notion of when it might be “too much of a good thing.”

Particularly watch for –

  • Optimism that others suggest might be unrealistic. They are often right.
  • Sleeping less than 6 hours a night for more than one night.
  • More and more projects and ideas. Having a hard time prioritizing.
  • Using substances to sustain the high energy – stimulants, more caffeine, even more alcohol…
  • Taking risks – driving faster, lots of new relationships, particularly sexual ones, spending more money than usual.

Contrarian Thinking

We have written extensively about the notion that it is not just the “ups” that may be useful. Sometimes a “fallow” period may be necessary for good ideas to germinate, and to separate those that might seem like a good idea but are not, from those that are truly noteworthy.

Fear of depression can drive excessive behavior when you are energized, or desperation when that energy seems to fade.

Pacing yourself is also about accepting the idea that there will be slow periods, and preparing for those as well.

For More Information

Running a Marathon

Winter Leads to Spring

Fallow Fields

Appreciating Depression?

Bipolar and Creativity

Joshua Walters Performance

Joshua WaltersI am happy to let you know about an upcoming performance from Joshua Walters.

Several years ago, Josh was a facilitator for the Depressive and Bipolar Support Association of San Francisco (DBSASF) Young Adults Group.

Josh was one of a handful of finalists in a TED Talks search for new talent with his talk “On Being Just Crazy Enough” which has had over a million views.


Here is information about the performance:

Performance Title: UNPLUG!
Location: La Peña Cultural Center

Address: 3105 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, CA (very close to Ashby BART Station)
Date: Saturday, November 22, 2014
Time: 7:30 PM to 9:00 PM
Cost: $10 (early bird special before 11/15) 

With the rate of technological advance, the world is becoming a faster, a more connected, and a more chaotic place. We are at a pinnacle moment in human history in which we can know everything and have our voices felt everywhere, but at what cost? What if everyone in the world stopped using technology for one day? To feel the effect on our minds, emotions, and connection to the divine: UNPLUG!

Layering improv, music, and comedy, the Unplug! experience will transport the audience to different time periods over the course of three acts which explores the spectrum of technology throughout human history, and is accompanied by a live music ensemble. The first act starts in a time of alienation where the digital is all that is known. Next, the second act explores the turning point of the industrial age, when tools become tactics. Conclusively, the third act depicts a time before screens and electricity, where every night is filled with story and song.

At the core of the play, Unplug! expresses the message of creating and preserving time for family and connection with the community. In the spirit unplugging, the audience will be asked to mask their cell phone usage with an individual unplug bag. The phones will be used for one last Instagram picture, and everyone will then ditch the technology for the rest of the night.

Curious Bay Area residents will have a chance to get their questions answered about Unplug! in a twitter Q&A with Joshua Walters. Anyone who has a question should tweet to @joshuawalters, and use the hashtag, #unplug. Participants can tune in on Wednesday, Nov 5 @ 7pm to find out if their questions have been answered.

About Joshua Walters:

Joshua Walters of Madhouse Rhythm, (((JawVox))), and soon to be UnPlug, is a performer who explores language, creativity, beatboxing and madness. His solo shows are a mash-up of comedy, intimate reflection and unpredictable antics. He is a regular contributor to Snap Judgment a weekly storytelling radio show on NPR with TV broadcasts on PBS. Walters was one of three speakers selected from a pool of 600 applicants to perform a TED Talk, titled On Being Crazy Enough, exploring the Bipolar Spectrum.

Walters’ work is both YouTube sensation (1.2M+ views), and critical success (“a warped reflection of our very real foibles, in the funniest possible way.”-San Francisco Chronicle). For his latest solo work, “UnPlug!”, Walters collaborates with 2011 Alpert Award winner Marc Bamuthi Joseph to launch into the chaotic nirvana of a global day without technology. Part stand-up, part hip hop aria, the piece moves from brave new future to shamanic past with velocity, humor, and intelligent funk. His eclectic combination of performance disciplines and activity as an educator in mental health has given Walters a national platform and audience. Walters is a National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) State Speaker and in 2002, he co-founded the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) Young Adults Chapter in San Francisco, one of the few support groups specifically for mentally ill young adults in the country.

For more information about Joshua Walters, check out his website:

Bipolar Books – Marbles

Bipolar books are coming out with greater frequency. I’m hoping to focus on some of the more creative examples in this site.

I’m happy, once again, to post a sample of a wonderful book by Ellen Forney called Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me. This is a delightful cartoon book that was a New York Times bestseller.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to interview Ellen at some point for the “Conversations” section of this website. In the meantime she’s given me permission to post a few cartoons from her book provided that I make sure to encourage readers to buy it themselves. Here is a link to her website.

Marbles Mania Depression Michelangelo and Me Boy Scout Bipolar Badges

My Motivation Is Gone

2014-02-12_7-15-20Several of the people that I saw this week have been struggling with a loss of motivation.

A lack of motivation can be one of the most prominent symptoms of a major depression, but there were other aspects of their loss of motivation that I found fascinating.

I asked one of these patients, a man in his 40s who is a very successful artist, what his experience of motivation was these days. As we talked about the flashes of creativity and excitement that he still experienced from time to time, it became clear that he was actually suppressing his innate motivation and excitement. Why would that be I wondered?

Some more discussion revealed that his loss of motivation centered on a very disappointing show of his art work. He had gotten unusual negative comments from critics, and this had led him to begin to doubt his abilities. This anxiety then led to an unconscious suppression of motivation. When an idea came along and he started to get interested in it he would tell himself that what he was experiencing wasn’t real enthusiasm, he was fooling himself into thinking he was interested.

However, the more we explored what was happening, the clearer it seemed that the way he was fooling himself was by discounting his interest and enthusiasm.

The same theme played itself out in several other conversations.

Each of these people complained of a lack of normal interest and motivation, and for all of them, what seemed to be happening was rather that when they experienced feelings of motivation and excitement they would discount or suppress them – often because of fear or doubt about their abilities to follow through with the ideas.

I often find it helpful to think about the human psyche as though it was composed of three different personalities, an internal child, a competent adult, and an internal parent.

Motivation primarily comes from the child. Its root is in the excitement that we had as children creating ideas and stories. You can see it in the lively play of pre-school age children.

Like a child, enthusiasm can be easily squelched. In fact, sometimes you need to nurture motivation, to create a welcoming environment for it to blossom (a playground!).

It may be hard to generate more enthusiasm, but it is easy to suppress it. Just imagine going onto the playground and sternly making fun of the enthusiastic and boisterous play of those children.

Lithium, Bipolar and Creativity

creativityA very talented writer who we’ve been seeing for about six months has noticed that her creativity seems to be way down. Creativity is a fundamental part of her view of herself. She is very upset.

Her concern is that the lithium she has been taking might be the cause. However, she has been quite depressed for the last month.

What do we know about lithium and creativity? How do we figure out what is caused by lithium and what is caused by depression? In other words, is it the treatment that’s causing the problem, or is it the underlying condition?

I went to the UCSF library and searched medical journals to find studies relevant to this question.

It turns out that there’s only one study about lithium and creativity. It is a 1986 study that found that there was a statistically significant increase in creativity after lithium was abruptly discontinued.

The study looked at people’s ability to come up with creative word associations. It involved 22 individuals who had a good and stable mood. They were on varying doses of lithium, and they were tested before and after abrupt discontinuation of lithium, and then again after the lithium was resumed.10-2-2013 7-32-42 PM

As I noted in the intro, the study found that numbers of creative word associations were higher after the lithium discontinued. There were about 10% more word associations made without lithium than while the subjects were taking lithium. In other words, creativity was reduced by about 10%.

It turned out that this effect was only seen at higher levels of lithium, at blood levels of 0.8 or below, there wasn’t any negative effect of lithium on creativity.

One potential confounding factor in assessing this study is that abrupt discontinuation of lithium is associated with an increased incident of energized states (hypo-mania and mania). We also know that an energized state is associated with increased creativity. In other words, was some of this increase in creativity due to a transient energized state that was induced by abruptly stopping the lithium?

I am inclined to think that there is some negative effect of lithium on creativity at higher doses. The effect is not large.

I then turned to the literature on mood effects on creativity. There are more studies on this topic. One recent one 10-2-2013 7-33-47 PMnoted big changes in one measure of creativity, depending on whether one was manic or depressed.

Reductions in creativity between these two mood states were quite large.  Creativity was reduced by 30% to 40 in depression (compared with mania).

What is the take-home lesson of this research?

Lithium does affect creativity, but its effects are significantly less than mood effects.  So the first place to look for sources of reduced creativity is inadequately treated depression.  If lithium is part of what’s treating depression, and is having even a modest beneficial effect, then the net effect of lithium is likely to be positive, especially if your dose is below 0.8.

Fallow Fields

fallowFarmers will sometimes leave a field “fallow” – they won’t plant anything in it but rather let native plants grow in it – as a way of rejuvenating the land. Then when they do plant the field it is often very productive.

We were talking with one of our clients this morning about the topic of seasonal variability in mood and were reminded by that conversation of the idea of a “fallow field.” How it is often the case that creative people will have a period of less productivity that seems to set the stage for a period of great creativity.

Sometimes a “slow” period may be a time when the brain can work its way through ideas and then put them together in a new and interesting way. Hereward Carrington wrote about this in his book, “The Psychology of Genius” in 1947. Dean Simonton, in his book, “Scientific Genius: A Psychology of Science” suggested that the more innovative the idea, the longer the period of incubation.

Certainly we know that when we are “on the go” all of the time, working in a frenzied fashion, checking things off our to do lists efficiently, we are often not very creative.

As with many of the ideas on this site, the notion of a fallow period is not always relevant, or useful. If a fallow period means deep and dark depression its value may not be as great… or, at least, the risks from it may be too significant to ignore.

But lets say you are noticing the shorter days, and the darker weather, and feeling a bit slower getting things done, that may not be a bad thing. See if there is some benefit to it for you.

The great thing about modern society is that it gives us the ability to change things (by getting light exposure with a therapy light), but that doesn’t mean we have to do so reflexively.

This short book by Ann Morrow Lindbergh celebrates the value of quiet periods. It is beautiful and thought provoking.