Meditation and the creative muse
More common sense, less evidence
If we think about the process of meditation, it makes sense that it might hone our creative capability. One of the key stages of meditation, to quieten the mind, de-clutter it of thousands of thoughts, would conceivably create space needed for new ideas to take shape and new connections to be made in the brain. That sounds sensible. We go for walks to clear our head and look at things anew. We can meditate to give ourselves some space to do the same.
Being one of the most famous proponents of Transcendental Meditation, Hollywood director David Lynch speaks regularly about how practicing TM brings out one’s creativity. He explains that when you transcend and tap into a higher level of consciousness, everything flows, including creativity.
But is there scientific evidence linking meditation to creativity? There is some, but it is still very limited, and historically most studies have proved inconclusive. The reason may be the immense difficulty of studying “creativity” as a topic, which poses even more challenges than studying the effects of meditation.
What is creativity?
Creativity is difficult to define, let alone measure. Roy Horan offers a definition in his paper that looks at the neuropsychological connection between meditation and creativity: creativity “…generates new information that is often discrete and domain-specific, and that transcends informational boundaries, yet is integrated with existing information in a manner exhibiting value”. In other words, being creative means having the ability to produce something original, which has value, that takes into account existing information but can extend beyond it. He explains that creativity can take on two forms:
“Transcendence surpasses informational limits; integration transforms informational boundaries.”
How creativity actually works in our brain is still somewhat of a mystery to neuroscientists. Even as recently as ten years ago the prevailing theory said creativity is driven by the right side of the brain; this is no longer the consensus view. Cognitive psychologist Barry Kauffman writes a neat article about where we stand in understanding the neural basis for creativity. It seems that creativity is a result of many different parts of our brain working together. Moreover, creativity is a process that involves preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. He says,
“Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.”
When and how this process takes place is something we may not even be aware of, and this is why measurement of creativity is so difficult. Creative sparks are unpredictable, they strike us unawares, sometimes through intuition, sometimes even in dreams. Controlled lab-experiments aren’t the most suitable places to measure it.
In her book Wild Courage, Elle Harrison cites good examples of how artists, writers, scientists, claim that their the ideas for their most famous creative contributions came to them unawares in dreams or imaginations. She quotes scientist James Lovelock’s words on the role of intuition in invention..…
“if you ask scientists how they made a discover, they will let you know it came to me in a flash. And it did. Then they spend atleast 2 years trying to explain it first to themselves and then perhaps ten to forty years trying to explain it to their colleagues”
The latest study on meditation & creativity
The most recent study to look at correlations was published last year in “Frontiers in Psychology”. It takes as its basis an established theory of creativity that distinguishes between divergent and convergent thinking. The former allows many ideas to be generated, such as in a brainstorming session. The latter “is considered a process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem. It emphasizes speed and relies on high accuracy and logic.” An example is a puzzle when someone is asked for the common link between 3 words, such as “time”, “hair” and “stretch”. (the answer is “long”).
The authors predicted that different types of meditation would strengthen different types of creative thinking. In particular, they predicted that open-monitoring meditation (OM), which encourages one to notice any sensations and thought as they arise, with a flexible, unrestricted attention, would strengthen divergent thinking, and focused-attention meditation (FA), where one singularly concentrates on one point of focus, would enhance convergent thinking. Mindfulness meditation is an example of open-monitoring meditation, whereas meditating on an object or particular feeling would be a type of focused attention mediation.
19 participants took part in a series of sessions for each of the 2 different types of meditation, and they were tested for mood and different modes of thinking before and after.
The results showed that statistically, significant improvements occurred in divergent thinking following open-monitoring meditation. For convergent thinking however, even though scores were best after focused-attention meditation, the results were not statistically significant.
Another result was that mood scores were significantly higher following both types of meditation. The authors cite the established theory that more positive mood correlates to divergent thinking, and therefore it may be that the same mood elevation that helped raise scores for divergent thinking after OM meditation, may have hindered convergent thinking after FA meditation.
Most studies have yielded inconclusive results on the link between meditation and creativity, a topic that is still little understood in neuroscience. The most recent study has found positive correlations between open-monitoring meditation and divergent thinking; i.e. it may be the case that continued practice of mindfulness meditation increases one’s ability for lateral thinking.
It is also interesting that it may be the increased positive mood resulting from meditation which is the reason for the increase in divergent thinking ability.
One final point to note is that one of the ways mindfulness meditation works on our brain is that it helps us better understand things and people which are dissimilar to us..which is also a creative leap in our comprehension.
 Horan, R. (2009). The Neuropsychological Connection Between Creativity and Meditation. Creativity Research Journal, 21(2/3), 199-222. doi: 10.1080/10400410902858691.
 The Beatles’ “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came to her through waking visions, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde” came to him in a dream