Over the last one and a half years or so, I was repeatedly asked whether there would be any current empirical evidence that meditation improves creativity. So, this topic has been on my radar for a while and now a first study appeared.
It is thus exciting to see that colleagues from Leiden University, Netherlands, made a first step towards addressing this question. A couple of weeks ago Lorenza Colzato, Ayca Ozturk and Bernhard Hommel published the article “Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking” in the open access Journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Two types of meditation
In this article they report a study where they compared the influence of two types of meditation on convergent and divergent thinking. In their classification of the two meditations they follow a distinction suggested by Antoine Lutz et al. in their 2008 article “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation” [pdf].
The first type of meditation is referred to as focused attention (FA), labelling meditations that aim at training and improving the ability to focus and maintain attention. Typically, a meditator would practice to focus all their attention on a chosen object, as for instance the sensation of one’s own breathing, at the expense of all other internal or external sensations.
This is contrasted with a second type, open monitoring (OM). In this approach to meditation, all internal and external sensations are experienced with the same openness, without focusing on specific objects or sensations.
The study: investigating meditation and creativity
In the study 19 participants with moderate levels of meditation experience were asked to either engage in the FA-meditation or in the OM-meditation and were afterwards tested on two tasks, which test convergent thinking and divergent thinking. In the convergent thinking task participants were asked to find a common associate for three unrelated words. For instance, when they were presented with the words time, hair and stretch a possible answer would be “long”. In the divergent thinking task participants were asked to list as many uses for common household items (e.g. brick, shoe, newspaper) as possible. According to one model of creativity, convergent and divergent thinking modes represent different components of human creativity; the former a process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem, the latter a process allowing many new ideas to be generated where more than one solution is correct.
Results: OM-Meditation increased creativity
As hypothesised, the results clearly showed that the meditators improved in divergent thinking after engaging in the OM-meditation, whereas the expected improvement in convergent thinking after FA-meditation did not occur.
With other words, after meditators practiced opening their mind in a balanced way to all arising thoughts, feelings and sensations they had access to more ideas how common objects might be used in novel ways, possibly as a result of engaging their mind in a less controlled, more flexible way.
Different meditations have different effects
These results tell us at least two things. First, that different ways of meditating influence our cognitive processing mode in distinct ways. Second, engaging in OM-meditation, where our attention is more evenly distributed, facilitates generating more diverse and divergent ideas and may thus contribute to more flexible or creative states of mind.
But what is creativity?
It is worth noting, that the model of convergent and divergent thinking is only one of several ways how creativity is approached and there are many other aspects to creativity not captured in this way. As a first step into this exciting topic, the results are certainly encouraging.