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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."

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
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Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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