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Meditation and Creativity (English Text)

Andreas Dittrich

Creativity is something everyone is capable of. Some people are more creative than others and there are different ways to express it: Painting, music, writing, an innovative idea, mechanical skills, business leadership or the next dinner we cook are only some examples. Basically, possibilities to use our creative potential start in the morning and end with us falling into sleep (some people are for sure creative in their dreams as well, but that is a different topic).

Meditation broadens our horizon in several ways. Above all, we earn a deep knowledge of ourselves – our body, our feelings, our desires and sensations. We start to listen and to be aware of the things we need to continue - or stop. And through that we gain deeper and deeper access to our intuition. Caring for ourselves and nurturing our intuition enable us to operate on a highly creative level – even if you consider yourself rather uncreative. 

Especially mindfulness practices train our flexibility. By focusing on each moment and situation as it happens now, we are able to adapt the circumstances and find creative solutions. Instead of thinking in old structures and habits which might be completely inadequate for the current problem. 

But what does science say?

A study from 2012 at the Leiden University in the Netherlands concentrated on the effects of "meditation based on focused-attention (FA) and [...] on open-monitoring (OM) meditation on creativity tasks tapping into convergent and divergent thinking".[1] To make the results easier to understand, let me shortly explore the difference between divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is a way of generating many different ideas in a situation where there are a few possible solutions. In convergent thinking the goal is to create exactly one solution to one specific problem.[2] Nineteen healthy participants practiced FA and OM meditation for about two years in average. 

The most important result of the study was that open-monitoring meditation had a positive impact on divergent thinking - boosting the production of more than one creative idea. The participants had to solve special tasks which represented the two thinking styles. The people who had an expertise in OM meditation performed highly better on the so called AUT task than the other group.[3] The practice of open-monitoring meditation consists of observing one’s own thought over a period of time without reacting or judging. In opposite to that focused-attention meditation means concentrating on a special thought, subject, object or feeling during the meditation time.

The second interesting finding of the study was the fact that not all types of meditation have the same or any effect. What is really important to remember is the fact, that the benefits of open-mind meditation techniques reach far beyond relaxing and cooling down – they have an impact on the way we percept things and deal with them.[4]

Another interesting study at the University of Rio de Janeiro measured the cognitive rigidity of people who are regular meditators and their creativity in solving problems compared to people who do not meditate. The conclusion the scientists were able to draw is that regular mindfulness meditation practice reduces cognitive rigidity and the habit to use complicated or outdated strategies as solutions to quite easy problems.[5] Maybe just one short sentence on what cognitive rigidity means: It describes the ability to think of new, creative and appropriate ideas when confronted with a difficulty. The higher one’s cognitive rigidity is the more inflexible and under pressure he becomes when he has to solve a problem. Which leads us back to our first article on meditation and stress. 

Finally, let’s have a look on our brain. Three main parts are responsible for our behavior: The neocortex steers our creative thinking, problem solving and strategizing qualities. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions. And last but not least, the reptilian brain saves our lives by activating our surviving instincts – mostly by adrenaline.[6] 

Researchers at Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology executed a study in 2006 whose results proved that regular meditation has an impact on the size of our brains. The “[b]rain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.”[7] The areas concerned are the ones responsible “for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being”, whom I described above.

In conclusion we have evident proof that the benefits of meditation dig much deeper than just relaxation and inner peace – although this would still be enough. By having direct impact on the structure of crucial parts of our brains, it fosters our creativity and enables us to think of innovative and adequate solutions no matter how unknown and complicated the problem we face is. Creativity is a very important skill when it comes to dealing with VUCA (vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Especially business tasks can be complex and quickly changing such that their solutions require a high grade of creative effort.

But let’s be honest: Living our lives is a highly creative piece of art – every day anew. If thirty minutes of meditation are helpful in simplifying it and boosting our power, I truly think, they are more than worth investing them.

[1] Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. and Hommel, B.: Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Psychology, 3, 116 (2012)

[2] See above

[3] See above

[4] See above

[5] Greenberg, J., Reiner, K., Meiran, N.: „Mind the trap“: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. PLoS ONE 7 (5): e36206. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036206 (2012)

[6] Rothschild, B.: How Mindfulness Meditation Boosts Creativity and Innovation. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bianca-rothschild/the-science-of-how-medita_b_5579901.html (2014)

[7] Cromie, W. J.: Meditation found to increase brain size. Retrieved from: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2006/02/meditation-found-to-increase-brain-size/ (2006)