Meditation has the ability to make long-lasting changes to human cognition, including rewiring how we think, and experience events. A recent study out of Leiden University demonstrated that certain meditation techniques are able to promote creative thinking adding to the growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of practicing these healing and restoring practices.
The study, led by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Calzato, looked at two specific kinds of meditation techniques and the influence they had on participants ability to solve certain kinds of creative tasks. Its findings are a clear indication that the advantages of certain types of meditation go beyond mere relaxation, and support their widespread introduction into the public consciousness as part of health and education policies.
Creativity is a very difficult concept to pin down. For this study the researchers chose to measure creativity along two broad dimensions:
Divergent thinking is focusing on coming up with as many different ideas as possible. For example taking a problem, such as “How can I learn more about meditation?”, and approaching it with the aim of looking at as many different perspectives as possible to try and conceive of the broadest range of solutions. It is a fluid, spontaneous, and non-linear way of thinking.
In the study the participants ability to engage in divergent thinking was measure through an ‘alternate uses task’. For this task, participants were asked to list as many possible uses for six common household items (brick, shoe, newspaper, pen, towel, bottle). The advantage of this kind of task is that it is easy to reliably score, without introducing subjective measure of creativity.
At the other end of the spectrum, convergent thinking is a process whereby one possible solution for a particular problem is generated. Here the approach is to ask a question such as “What is the best meditation technique for me to practice?”. To contrast this with the divergent thinking example where the goal is as many different answers as possible, answering this question would involve collecting information and sorting through it in order to gradually narrow down on one ‘correct’ solution.
For the meditation and creativity study participants were given a ‘remote association task’. In this task, participants are presented with three unrelated words (such as time, hair, and stretch) and are asked to find a common associate (long). It still involves a kind of creative thinking, but the difference is that there is supposed to be only be one correct answer to each question.
The researchers used the convergent and divergent thinking tasks in order to measure which meditation technique most influenced these creative activities. They used a modern categorization of different techniques which broadly divides meditation into two groups:
Open Monitoring Meditation
Open monitoring meditation is practicing the awareness of thinking. Also classified as a mindfulness-based technique, it involves the non-reactive monitoring of the content of an ongoing experience, primarily as a means to become respectively aware of the nature of emotional and cognitive patterns (Raffone & Srinivasan, 2009). Open monitoring practices are based on an attentive set characterized by an open presence and a nonjudgmental awareness of sensory, cognitive and affective of experience in the present moment and involves a higher-order meta-awareness of ongoing mental processes (Cahn & Polich, 2006)
Focused Attention Meditation
Focused attention is a concentrative style of meditations, where voluntary sustained attention is focused on a given object, and attention is brought back to the object of attention when the mind has wandered (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Raffone & Srinivasan, 2009). The meditator is controlling the contents of the beam of attention.
The aim of the study was to look at the possibility that different meditation techniques would bias people towards particular cognitive states. The researchers began with the assumption that Focused Attention (FA) meditation would induce a controlled cognitive state that would lend itself to the ‘remote association task’, and alternatively that Open Monitoring (OM) meditation would bring on a distributed state better suited for the ‘alternate uses task’.
After concluding the research the results showed that, in agreement with the assumption, Open Monitoring meditation led individuals to excel at divergent thinking, but had no effect on convergent thinking. However, the assumptions about Focused Attention meditation proved to be partially incorrect. As expected, people who practiced FA performed no better at the divergent thinking task, but it was also found that there was no significant effect on the convergent task either.
Participants’ mood was also measured, and both meditation techniques had a comparable effect on elevating these scores.
How significant these findings are depends in some way on how one interprets the methods used in the study, and the quantitative results obtained (For those interested the full study can be found here.) In any event, a case was made showing that not all types of meditation have the same effect on their practitioners. This goes a long way towards explaining why many previous studies failed to find convincing positive results of meditation’s effect on creativity.
For those of us who are already regular practitioners this study likely comes as no surprise. Nevertheless the fact that this kind of rigorous and narrowly defined scientific study has been undertaken shows that a new page has been turned on science’s approach to these mind healing and expanding techniques coming down to us from ancient times. I for one would never be a proponent of ever saying that one technique is superior to another, and enjoy having a wide pallet of options available. The contribution studies like this make is in helping individuals in making better informed decisions about what techniques to employ for which reasons.
About the Author
With years and coaching and management experience, Andrew Brown built up an interest in personal development and growth after struggling to get better results both for his clients and himself.