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Cycling & Creativity
In this series, we explore how cycling can unlock creative thinking. Drawing upon research by Stanford University and the University Côte d’Azur, pedal power has a whole new meaning.
Down in the drops, you slip into a smooth rhythm. Slicing through the wind and curving around the corners, your mind begins to wander. Accompanied by the steady beat of your breathing, an idea starts to form. The details will need a bit of work but you can tell you’re onto something good...
We’ve all experienced it. Perhaps it was a problem you’ve been trying to grapple with at work or an issue at home that you can’t seem to solve. Heart thumping, muscles burning, a solution comes to you whilst out on your bike. And this isn’t a coincidence.
Researchers at Stanford University and the University Côte d’Azur have established a connection between physical exercise and creativity. Delving deeper, they examined how specific types of exercise, and the intensity of it, can enable us to reach an increased level of creative brain activity. And cycling is one of the best sports for the job.
LAMHESS laboratory in Nice conducted an experiment involving a dozen cyclists. Over the course of four sessions, the riders alternated between phases of rest, low intensity, moderate intensity, and moderate intensity with varied ‘vigour’.
During the activity, their heartbeat, temperature, and blood sugar levels were monitored and a specially designed helmet used spectrometry to measure the oxygen levels in their brain. The device revealed that the riders’ brain activity was reduced in the frontal lobe, known as hypofrontality. The researchers noted the benefits: “under certain exercise conditions we witness a lesser degree of cognitive control, the mind ‘takes off'” - as your legs pump, your thoughts become free.
Professor Jeanick Brisswalter, one of the founding researchers behind the study, explains further: “When the frontal lobe of the brain is inhibited, many filters that control our cognitive functions - notably those with which we make decisions, disappear. In doing so, this allows us to access these cognitive processes more unconsciously and make room for more originality and creativity.”
As an intense, rhythmic, physical activity, cycling lends itself to reaching this ‘liberated’ cognitive state. Rides can often last for many hours and, unlike running or high-impact cardio training, cycling doesn’t repeatedly shock the body. The muscles take control, your conscious mind relaxes and, in doing so, your thoughts are free to explore uncharted territory. As Arne Dietrich, a professor of cognitive science, states: “this is when spontaneous creativity happens.”
Internationally renowned artist Lisa Congdon, who has created work for the likes of MoMA and Comme des Garçons, advocates this connection between cycling and creativity: “Minds can wander on those long, soul-searching rides; just think of the designs that you could come up with.”
And she’s not the only one. Backed by science and keen to learn more, we went searching for men and women, artisans and professionals, to find out if cycling helps boost their creativity.
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