I’ve previously written about the specific kind of meditation that leads to “Inspiration, Creativity, & New Ideas,” but I want to return to this issue. Creativity is a necessary skill in all disciplines, yet it’s among the most difficult to teach. The research on mindfulness offers a few different strategies.
In a recent New York Times article, Dan Hurley (2014) wrote about some “unwanted side effects” of mindfulness, including inhibiting the mind-wandering that leads to creativity. It’s worth noting that the mindfulness he’s talking about is very specific: “attentiveness” or “staying focused on a task” (Schooler, et al., 2014, p. 11). The companion studies he cites measure the difference between working on a “demanding task” that requires focused attention and working on an “undemanding task” that allows the minder to wander (Baird, et al., 2012, p. 1118). All participants completed “a classic creativity task,” and then–before repeating this task–some were given an “incubation” break (p. 1117), and some were given no break at all. Among those who took a break, a third sat quietly for 12 minutes, a third did an activity that requires concentration, and a third did an activity that allows the mind to wander.* This last group scored highest on the repeated creativity test.
The implications of these two studies are useful. The title of the second study captures the lesson, “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance Between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering.” Hurley concludes, “The trick is knowing when mindfulness [focused attention] is called for and when it’s not.” So one way to inspire creativity is by allowing students to “incubate,” not by assigning rest or a different task but instead by giving them something simple to do that allows them to daydream.
Notice that these studies address mindful attention to a present task. They mention meditation only in relation to the benefits found in their own research and others’, such as improvements in working memory, reading comprehension, and other “cognitive skills that were until recently viewed as immutable” (Schooler, et al., 2014, p. 13). Recall that different ways of meditating have different results. The type used in many of these cognitive studies is “focused attention” meditation, but if the goal is creative thinking, “open monitoring” meditation is most effective:
“the individual is open to perceive and observe any sensation or thought without focusing on a concept in the mind or a fixed item; therefore attention is flexible and unrestricted.” (Colzato, Ozturk, & Hommel, 2012, p. 1)
The next time I want my students to do something creative, I’m going to double the effort by guiding them in a little open-monitoring meditation and encouraging them to let their minds wander as part of the activity.
For an open-monitoring meditation, return to this practice from my previous post.
For a mind-wandering activity (or, in the parlance of these studies, an incubation break involving an undemanding task), I think again of my topic a few weeks ago: doodling or knitting. As I mentioned, I’ve never really been a doodler, so I needed some ideas. Judy West’s site has some good prompts, and I especially like the Ornate Scrolled Alphabet. (Click the image to the right, and scroll down.)
* The tasks in the study involved watching numbers appear on a screen. The easier task was determining whether a number that appeared in colored font was odd or even; the harder task was determining whether the previous number shown was odd or even (Baird, et al., 2012, p. 1119).