How mindfulness improves creativity

Interest in the  psychological effects of mindfulness-meditation has grown in the last decade. Several studies suggest that being mindful leads to better functioning and increased attention. But how can mindfulness improve our ability to be creative?

We know when we try too hard that it is difficult to be creative. Indeed it can be very frustrating to try and complete a creative task. We can feel we're not in the zone. Yet, when we apply mindfulness to the creative process we can often see a way through, or gain insight. So why is mindfulness so effective in helping to develop our creative juices?

The Leiden Institute for Brain Cognition conducted research in this area. The research found that mindfulness helps to:

  • reduce the influence of habitual conceptual processes.

  • improve divergent thinking. These are the kind of thought process that helps you brainstorm many ideas.

  • improve people's moods and enhances thinking

What happens in the brain when it develops a creative insight?

A creative insight requires novel associations to form between pre-existing ideas and/or concepts.

This connection between ideas and concepts takes place in the large part of the brain known as the cerebrum. This is where neurons connect with each other to form vast arrays of neural networks that carry out specific functions. It is also associated  with the neocortex and the hippocampus that are both important in creative tasks.

The neocortex houses integrated representations of previous experiences. These representations help you predict what will happen based on your previous experiences. By contrast, the hippocampus stores recently experienced information. Over time  information stored in the hippocampus integrates into the neocortex. This conversation between these areas of the brain is happening all the time. When unrelated nodes connect new associations form. These new associations and networks leads to innovation.

What does neuroscience tell us about how to improve our creativity?

  1. Previous exposure

To form a new association between two previously unrelated factors, they must already be represented in the brain.  This means a broad understanding and general awareness of the challenge is essential.

  1. Incubation

To be creative we need to facilitate the right environment. The brain needs the space and opportunity to make new connections and the time for them to emerge. This includes calming emotions and thoughts to allow creative ideas to bubble up and emerge more easily.

  1. Rest

People often spontaneously solve a problem after a period of not thinking about it. We talk about having a "brainwave." Or you might wake up with the “answer”. Studies consistently show time spent away from a problem improves the ability to find creative solutions. By resting we give the neocortex and hippocampus time to make new associations.

So how does mindfulness help?

In a world full of stimulus and distraction, mindfulness is a way of calming the mind. When we are mindful we bring our body and mind into harmony.  Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment. It is the act of learning to be present with ourselves and our surroundings. Not trying to change things but instead accepting the way that things are. It is the continuous practice of touching life in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing.

Being mindful is about being aware of what is going on in and around us. When we are mindful we have not blanked out, we are conscious and calm. Our monkey mind is able to find some stability. Then when rested we can begin to function better. This will allow us to find creative solutions to challenging issues. It makes it possible for insights to emerge and creativity to flourish.

Mindfulness gives us the chance to rest and to incubate thoughts and ideas so that we may access our more creative selves.

The present moment

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is the world's foremost teacher of mindfulness. He puts it like this, "peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see."

Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. We can develop mindfulness through conscious practice in our daily life. No matter what we are doing we can encourage being present and mindful.

We can try a simple "In-Out" exercise developed by Thich Nhat Hanh to help us achieve this. Focusing on your breath say to yourself.

  • Breathing in, I calm my body
  • Breathing out, I smile

This exercise can help us at any time of day, wherever we are, to become present with ourselves and others.

The simplest way of developing mindfulness is to focus our attention on our breath, to notice how we breathe.This will help us to bring our body and mind into harmony so we can begin to be present with whatever we are doing.

So when we calm the mind we allow divergent thinking to take place and new connections between concepts/ideas to emerge. This then leads us to be able to make creative connections that previously we were not aware of. So the next time you want to develop your creative ideas rather than trying to think too hard, stop. Rest. Follow your breath. Then allow your mind to make new creative connections

Exercises for you to try

Colour Walk

Sit quietly for a few minutes and practice the In Out meditation described above.

Choose a colour and then go for a short mindful walk. Notice in particular the colour

you have chosen, and where and how it manifests in the world.

When you return write or draw your experience.

Object Awareness

Sit quietly for a few minutes and practice the In Out meditation.

Find an object that interests you, and sit in mindfulness, using that object as your object of awareness. Focus your awareness on that object and notice what emerges for you. If you notice your attention wandering, simply bring it back to the object with warmth and compassion for yourself. When you are ready write or draw your experience.

To find out more

Settle Stories runs several retreats and workshops every year using mindfulness to develop creativity. You can find out more here.