Your Brain on Speed: Walking Doesn’t Impair Thinking and Multitasking

When we’re strolling down memory lane, our brains recall just as much information while walking as while standing still—findings that contradict the popular science notion that walking hinders one’s ability to think.

University of Michigan researchers at the School of Kinesiology and the College of Engineering examined how well study participants performed a very complex spatial cognitive task while walking versus standing still.

“We’re saying that at least for this task, which is fairly complicated, walking and thinking does not compromise your thinking ability at all,” said Julia Kline, a U-M doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering and first author on the study, which appears online in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The finding surprised researchers, who expected to see decreased thinking performance with increased walking speed, Kline said. The 2011 best-selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow” suggests that because walking requires mental effort, walking may hinder our ability to think when compared to standing still.

“Past studies that have compared mental performance at a slow walking speed and standing have not found any differences, but our study is the first to show that the walking speed doesn’t matter,” said Daniel Ferris, professor of kinesiology and biomedical engineering and senior author of the paper.

“Given the health benefits of walking, we should not discourage people from walking and thinking when they want.”

This image shows the researchers and a study participant.
From left, biomedical engineering PhD student, Grant Hanada, Kinesiology undergraduate student, Maggie Smith, and Julia Kline, biomedical engineering PhD student. Credit Ferris Lab.

Ferris offered one caveat: previous research has shown that walking performance can be impaired in the elderly when they dual-task during gait.

Ferris, Kline and Katherine Poggensee of U-M’s Human Neuromechanics Laboratory measured the ability of young, healthy participants to memorize numbers and their placement on a grid, and then enter those numbers correctly with a keypad while walking different speeds and standing still.

“Think of filling numbers one through nine on a tic-tac-toe grid and then remembering where they all are,” Ferris said. “At every walking speed and standing still, participants entered about half the numbers correctly.”

While speed didn’t change task performance, people took wider steps when performing the task than when they were only walking, which may be to compensate and stay balanced while concentrating, Kline said.

All participants showed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with spatial relationships and short-term memory during the cognitive task. In keeping with the U-M findings, a recent Stanford study suggested that walking fueled creativity.

In addition to good news for treadmill-desk users or people who like to think on the move, the study provides a useful scientific tool by demonstrating that it’s possible to collect accurate EEG data on moving subjects, Kline said.

This is important to researchers who study the brain and are concerned about getting accurate results when the subjects aren’t perfectly still. U-M researchers achieved their EEG results by applying different signal-processing techniques to eliminate the movement “noise” from the EEG signal.

Notes about this neuroscience research

Contact: Laura Bailey – University of Michigan
Source: University of Michigan press release
Image Source: The image is credited to Ferris Lab and is adapted from the press release
Original Research: Full open access research for “Your brain on speed: cognitive performance of a spatial working memory task is not affected by walking speed” by Julia E. Kline, Katherine Poggensee and Daniel P. Ferris in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Published online May 8 2014 doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00288

Open Access Neuroscience Abstract

Your brain on speed: cognitive performance of a spatial working memory task is not affected by walking speed

When humans walk in everyday life, they typically perform a range of cognitive tasks while they are on the move. Past studies examining performance changes in dual cognitive-motor tasks during walking have produced a variety of results. These discrepancies may be related to the type of cognitive task chosen, differences in the walking speeds studied, or lack of controlling for walking speed. The goal of this study was to determine how young, healthy subjects performed a spatial working memory task over a range of walking speeds. We used high-density electroencephalography to determine if electrocortical activity mirrored changes in cognitive performance across speeds. Subjects stood (0.0 m/s) and walked (0.4, 0.8, 1.2, and 1.6 m/s) with and without performing a Brooks spatial working memory task. We hypothesized that performance of the spatial working memory task and the associated electrocortical activity would decrease significantly with walking speed. Across speeds, the spatial working memory task caused subjects to step more widely compared with walking without the task. This is typically a sign that humans are adapting their gait dynamics to increase gait stability. Several cortical areas exhibited power fluctuations time-locked to memory encoding during the cognitive task. In the somatosensory association cortex, alpha power increased prior to stimulus presentation and decreased during memory encoding. There were small significant reductions in theta power in the right superior parietal lobule and the posterior cingulate cortex around memory encoding. However, the subjects did not show a significant change in cognitive task performance or electrocortical activity with walking speed. These findings indicate that in young, healthy subjects walking speed does not affect performance of a spatial working memory task. These subjects can devote adequate cortical resources to spatial cognition when needed, regardless of walking speed.

“Your brain on speed: cognitive performance of a spatial working memory task is not affected by walking speed” by Julia E. Kline, Katherine Poggensee and Daniel P. Ferris in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, May 8 2014 doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00288.

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