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Walking Backward May Sharpen Thinking

Facing a Challenge? Backing Yourself Out of It -- Literally -- May Help

By Miranda Hitti
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

May 8, 2009 -- The next time you're facing a challenge, you might not want to stand your ground. Maybe you should try walking backward instead, Dutch researchers suggest.

"Whenever you encounter a difficult situation, stepping backward may boost your capability to deal with it effectively," Severine Koch, PhD, and colleagues write in May's edition of Psychological Science.

Koch's team works for the social and cultural psychology department at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

They were interested in the effects that "approach" movements, like walking toward something or pulling something toward you, and "avoidance" movements, such backing away from something, have on mental functioning.

The researchers reasoned that the body and mind are on higher alert when they're in avoidance mode. So they put that theory to the test by studying 38 students at Radboud University Nijmegen.

Each student took word tests in which they read a color word -- like red -- that was sometimes displayed in matching ink (like "red" written in red ink) and sometimes shown in another color (like "red" written in blue ink).

The students had to name, as quickly as possible, the color of the ink. And, they had to do that while walking forward, backward, or stepping sideways.

When the test was easy -- and the color names and inks matched -- reaction times for correct answers were just as good while the students walked forward, backward, or sideways.

But when the test was tough -- and the color names and inks clashed -- reaction times for correct answers were quickest while walking backward. Reaction times while walking forward or stepping sideways were similar.

Based on the reaction time advantage, Koch and colleagues write that "backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resource."

But do look to see where you're going -- safety first.

SOURCES: Koch, S. Psychological Science, May 2009; vol 20: pp 549-550.

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