Walking backwards boosts creativity

The established routines and habits of everyday life can stifle our ability to think creatively. That’s according to a new study that’s based on the “embodied cognition” idea that performing bodily movements in a conventional manner encourages the mind to follow suit, and vice versa. The researchers say that by breaking out of physical conformity – such as by walking backwards instead of forwards – we can foster a more creative mindset.

The study began by asking 30 students to spend the morning as they normally would, but with one exception – wherever they went, they had to always walk backwards. A control group of 30 students spent a normal morning walking forwards. At lunch time, all the students were tested on two standard tests of creativity: thinking up novel uses for a brick and drawing pictures of aliens.

Five of the students from the walking backwards group were unable to participate in the lunch-time tests due to minor injury or getting lost, including one man who tripped over his cat in the morning, and a woman who walked into a water feature in the university grounds. However, the remaining walking backwards students outperformed the controls on the creativity tasks, coming up with more original uses for bricks and more outlandish aliens.

To gain real-life support for their ideas, in a follow-up experiment the researchers collaborated with a tech start-up company in London. On one floor of the company offices, all staff were instructed to spend a week walking backwards. In light of the student accidents, lead researcher Eve Errs commissioned the production of a special helmet for these staff to wear, providing head protection, but also featuring rear-view mirrors to help the wearer see obstacles behind them, and a beeping noise that sounds during backward locomotion.

At the week’s end, based on line manager ratings, the work of the backward walking staff was more creative than the work of staff on the other floors. On the negative side, ratings show the backward walking staff had achieved far less. Observational data suggested this was due to the increased time taken for movement around the building, frequent drink spillages, and several instances of uncontrollable laughing fits among the staff.

In the final strand of the research, Errs and her colleagues analysed the creative output of pop star Michael Jackson before and after he started performing his famous backwards Moonwalk. “Jackson’s oeuvre provides a rare historical record of an artist’s creativity both before and after the onset of increased time walking backwards,” the researchers explained. “On tour, he would [moon]walk backwards several times a night, each night, and that’s not to mention all the time he would have spent walking backwards in rehearsals.” The researchers claim their analysis showed that Jackson’s lyrics and musical style showed increased variation and divergent creativity in the 10 years after he first Moonwalked as compared with the 10 years prior.

Errs and her team conclude that the three studies provide converging evidence for the creative benefits of walking backwards. In an email to the Digest, Errs told us this is just the tip of the iceberg and that she is now expanding her research programme into a full “backwards living” movement. “Take any mundane activity, do it in reverse,” she said, “and you encourage your mind to think differently, to shake off the constraints of habit and conformity. Have dinner at breakfast, or have a shower before you exercise, the possibilities are endless.” She says she is already working with film studios to produce movie releases that can be viewed backwards, and she hopes her backwards walking helmet will be available commercially very soon.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Errs, E., Wards, B., & Walk, M. (2015). Thinking in new directions through reverse locomotion. Journal of Creative Studies, 23 (3), 427-436

Update: this post is a fiction written for April Fools’ Day. Eve Errs is an anagram of “reverse”. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk was one product of his creative genius (with a little help from the street dancers he observed), not the cause.

Please note: Joking aside, backwards walking itself is an established exercise with apparent physiological benefits. Many thanks to Gina Jones-Spengler for passing on further information.

–further reading–
Mild intoxication aids creative problem solving
Is group brainstorming more effective if you do it standing up?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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