Think back to a time when you came up with a creative idea. It might seem like it popped into your mind, fully formed — or dropped into your brain while you were doing something totally unrelated, like taking a shower or going for a run.
Runners in particular often cite the mind-clearing, meditative aspect of hitting the pavement as one of the reasons why they love to run. And in fact, some research does indicate a link between exercise and creative thought: One 2014 Stanford University study found that participants experienced a creative boost after walking on treadmills. Research also supports a larger connection between exercise and brain health, since physical activity can lead to neurogenesis — the creation of new neurons in the part of the brain linked to learning and memory. Exercise has also been linked to other mental benefits like increased neuroplasticity and greater ability to learn, as well as better task-switching ability and improved focus.
But how exactly does running impact the creative process? Dr. Michael Mannino, Chief Science Officer at Flow Research Collective, suggests that getting into flow — a state of intense concentration that occurs during an activity that is just challenging enough for your level of skill — could also help you harness creativity. Though finding flow is possible in almost any activity, Mannino says it’s particularly common in tasks that are autotelic, or intrinsically rewarding. In other words, you’re more likely to feel flow when you’re doing something you love, like going for a long run through the park, than something you have to do, like washing the dishes. Because running also taps into several other triggers for flow — including deep embodiment, clear feedback, concentration on a task, and novelty — Mannino says it’s a prime example of an activity that allows you to find flow.
Entering a flow state actually changes what is happening in your brain, effectively priming it for creative thought, Mannino explains. Flow enhances cognitive control, allowing different brain networks to communicate with each other. Mannino says that flow can also change your brain’s chemistry by releasing different chemicals — including serotonin, dopamine, and various neurotransmitters — and even alter your brain waves. During flow, your brain waves slow from quick-thinking beta waves to slower alpha waves (often associated with daydreaming) and theta waves (often found just before you fall asleep). “The brain seems to be able to eliminate distractions completely,” he explains. “Different parts of the brain start talking to one another that amplify pattern recognition, creativity, and learning and motivation.” In fact, a study conducted by Flow Research Collective and the University of Southern California discovered a strong positive correlation between self-reported creativity and flow states, while another 2020 study found links between higher levels of curiosity, joy in flow, and creativity.
When your brain is in a state of flow, you might find it easier to enter the creative process — something Liane Gabora, an interdisciplinary psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, has spent her career researching. Gabora says creative ideas often emerge through associative thinking. When you’re thinking creatively, she explains, your brain is combining two disparate concepts to form a completely new concept, or putting a concept in a new context so you see it in a new way. For example, the concepts of “snow” and “man” are totally transformed when you come up with the idea for a snowman.
In 2010, Gabora actually discovered what’s happening in the brain when you make those associations between different concepts: your brain accesses the mental encodings of each concept in different neurons, then binds them together into a new thought through a process called neural synchrony. “It’s not luck or just random noise,” she says. “It’s actually because of the capacity of your memory to form these bridges, based on this chameleon-like nature in which concepts change shape in different situations, that allows you to make that connection.”
Gabora explains that the process of associative memory works by finding the correlation between two ideas — something that requires your brain to switch from the logical, cause-and-effect thinking of the brain’s executive network to the more creative thinking of the default network. Gabora says this is why you often feel the need to step away from a complex problem and do something else — like go for a run — to come up with a solution. “This more correlation-based thinking is something that comes to you more easily when your mind is not under control of your fore brain and that really logical thinking, but you’re allowed to just detach from it,” she explains. “While you’re doing something else, the back burners of your brain — this default network — will still be active nonetheless. And that allows these ideas to percolate and come to the forefront.”
Gabora says the most creative thinkers have a worldview that allows them to think outside the box and come up with new ideas that haven’t been tried before. That kind of expansive perspective requires exposure to different concepts, points of view, and knowledge — and time to make sense of all that information, she says. Running can present an opportunity for the brain to synthesize different stimuli, as it allows you to enter an unencumbered mental state where you can let your mind wander.
“There’s this rhythm that you’re falling into, and so long as you just keep up with that rhythm, there’s nothing else you’re expecting of yourself,” she explains. “You can just drift mentally and see what are those unanswered questions in your brain? What’s some lingering thing that wasn’t quite what you expected? These gaps in your understanding, once you detect them, can be the seeds for new streams of associative thought that might lead to some creative ideas.”
Once you become aware of the impact that running can have on your mind, Mannino says you might even be able to use running to harness a flow state purposefully. If you know that going for a challenging run can help you enter flow — and therefore, prime your brain to think creatively — you can use that mental state to really meditate on a problem you want to solve, or come up with a fresh idea. “Cognition is grounded in movement, and movement is required for cognition,” he says. “If we use movement in very organized ways like running, then we get a lot of bang for our buck in terms of the effects on mental wellness and cognition.” Plus, flow just feels good: it refocuses your thoughts away from worries and stress, and can even help guard against work-related burnout.
In other words, getting into flow for the sake of it can be beneficial — much like creativity. Gabora sees the creative process as an accomplishment in and of itself, whether or not you produce a physical work like a painting, musical composition, or invention. “What really matters is that you are actually changed by the creative process,” she says. Thinking creatively can change how you see yourself as well as the world around you, potentially altering your worldview and setting the stage for future creativity. Consider practicing creativity the same way as going for a run: You might not achieve a personal record every time you lace up your sneakers, but each step you take trains your muscles for the next run.