Creativity Mindfulness Neuroscience

The Neuroscience of Creative Thinking and Mindfulness

Neuroscience of Creative Thinking - Hedgehog Toy

Note from Magda: I am happy to say that this is the third guest post by The NeuroMindfulness Institute on my blog. It talks about the neuroscience of creative thinking and mindfulness.

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I have taken the NeuroMindfulness Online Coach Certification Course (NMCC) developed by Veronica and Arnaud from The NeuroMindfulness Institute. I really loved it: the breadth of content (covering areas such as Stress and Well-being, Cognitive Performance, Trust and Human Connection, as well as a very comprehensive set of Mindfulness Practices) was really appealing to the neuroscience geek in me :). I’m an now using my winter holidays to go through this course again and really take the time to “savour” it.

And… because I honestly enjoyed this course so much, we have come to an agreement and formed a partnership: my readers can access their course (usually priced at EUR695+VAT) with a 15% discount (EUR104 discount).

If you are interested in the course, just have a look HERE to see more about its content and use the discount code mt15 at check-out. I hope you will find it as useful as I did! And now…. let’s get back now to our subject of today 🙂 – meaning, their guest article on my blog, about the neuroscience of creative thinking and mindfulness.

I hope you will enjoy it and find it useful!


The Neuroscience of Creative Thinking and Mindfulness

Creative thinking is an increasingly important skill in the work environment, especially since it differentiates us humans from artificial intelligence.

Do you remember the last time you had a creative “aha” moment? Was it when you were working hard on solving a problem, or was it more when you were relaxed, for example when you were having a walk or taking a shower? 

Creative insights come from new associations discovered by our brains. Most people have them when we are relaxed, which is why the shower is such a great moment to welcome creative insights, but they can only come if we have already studied in a focused way the question we want to solve beforehand.

We cannot force creative insights to come to us, but we can create the most favorable conditions for them to come, such as taking a break after an intense study time, in order to give time to our minds to make new associations. 

Mindfulness is known to improve our creative thinking skills. If you have an established meditation practice, you will probably have noticed that it helps with creative thinking, and that insights sometimes even come during your meditation practice. Researchers have shown that 10 min of meditation are enough to improve the range of new ideas by 22% compared to a control group. 

How is this happening?

We will explore here 4 perspectives that can help us understand how.

1. Mindfulness increases mental clarity

The vast majority of our mental processes are unconscious. Most of the time, we reach a conclusion based on unconscious reasoning, which is much faster and more associative than conscious reasoning. Because of its associative nature, our unconscious mind is much better at making new connections between ideas than our conscious mind.

One of the challenges in creative thinking is to notice new ideas in the background noise of our mind. The worst thing you can do for creative thinking is multitasking. Researchers from Harvard showed that employees who multitask are much less performant on tasks requiring creative thinking that those who focus on one task at a time.

Mindfulness trains both focus and mental calm, leading to higher mental clarity. The image that is often used by mindfulness teachers is that of a lake. If there is a lot of wind, and the surface of the lake is agitated, if you through a stone in the water, you will not see the ripples. If the water is calm, you will see very clearly the ripples. The mind works in the same way. If it is agitated and jumping from one though to the other, it is very hard to notice interesting associations lost in a continuous flow of thoughts. When we learn to calm down our flow of thoughts, we notice them much clearly. This leads to a shift of the frontier separating conscious from unconscious mental processes. We can become aware of some thoughts that would have otherwise not have surfaced from our unconscious mind.

This is reflected by the most basic way to analyze brain activity: brain waves. Brain activity is reflected by the frequency of our brain waves. Creative insights often come when our brain is in dominant alpha waves, which reflect a calm state of mind (as opposed to beta waves, which reflect a very active mind). Mindfulness practice is known to shift mental activity from beta to alpha brain waves.

2. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to switch from mind-wandering to attention

Creative insights require some form of mind-wandering to generate new ideas and associations, but very often, because of our hard-wired negativity bias, our minds tend to drift either in the past, leading to ruminations, or in the future, leading to worries. The more we are stressed, the more we are victims of our uncontrolled mind-wandering. 

Let’s have a look at the neural networks that regulate our mind-wandering and attention: 

Mind-wandering is due to a neural network called the Default Mode Network. It has been named like this because it comes online when we instruct somebody to do nothing. This network is responsible for time travel, either in the past of the future. 

When we focus our attention on an object, a concept or a question, we activate a network called the Central Executive Network. The analogy we can use is that of a flashlight that focuses the beam of light on an object.

There is a third network regulating our attention: it is called the Salience network. Its function is to allow us to notice things that are noteworthy.

These networks are most of the time mutually exclusive. When the Default Mode Network is active (leading to mind-wandering), the activity of the 2 others decreases. Conversely, when we are focused on solving a problem through logical reasoning, the activity of the Central Executive and Salience networks increases, leading to a deactivation of the Default Mode Network. 

Stress tends to shift that balance towards more mind-wandering, which is why it is very difficult to concentrate when we are stressed. 

Mindfulness has the opposite effect of stress, since it trains our mind to focus on an object such as our breath (Central Executive Network), and to notice our body sensations, thoughts and emotions without attachment (Salience Network). This also leads to a decreased activation of the Default Mode Network, and consequently less mind-wandering.

Recent research has shown that there is one situation in which all 3 networks are activated: creative thinking. This works in an iterative process:

  • First, the Default Mode Network generates a flow of new ideas from associations of knowledge stored in our memory
  • Then the Salience networks identifies the interesting ones and sends them to the Central Executive Network for evaluation of their relevance and novelty
  • The Central Executive networks then sends back information to the Default Mode Network to re-orient the search

This implies that creative thinking requires an efficient communication and flexible switching between those 3 networks, and the creative capacity of a person can be predicted based on the strength of its connectivity between these 3 networks. 

This is exactly what Mindfulness is strengthening. Recent studies have shown that the connectivity between those 3 networks, and the capacity to switch from one to the other in a flexible way are strengthened in meditators. Meditation is not so much about silencing the Default Mode Network, but more about learning to control its activity and being able to leverage its creative potential when needed rather than being a victim of our own mind-wandering.

3. Different types of meditation improve divergent and convergent thinking

Creative thinking is often described as dependent on 2 mental processes: divergent thinking, which involves generating new ideas (e.g.: what uses can you think of for a drone?), and convergent thinking, which involves generating one possible solution to a particular problem (e.g.: find a common associate within three unrelated words such as “time,” “hair,” and “stretch,”: the common associate is “long”).

There are many types of meditation, but they can be divided into 3 main types:

  • Focused-attention type of meditation involves focusing the mind on an object, usually the breath, and coming back to the point of focus when we notice that the mind has wandered away.
  • Open-monitoring | Open-awareness type of meditation involves observing the flow of thoughts without clinging to them
  • Meditations cultivating altruistic qualities such as compassion, loving-kindness, gratitude, joy, equanimity

Open-awareness meditation practice has been shown to improve divergent thinking, since it trains the mind to allow thoughts to flow (Default Mode Network) and observe them. Focused attention meditation practice has been shown to improve convergent thinking. By practicing both types of meditation, one can improve both creative thinking skills.

4. Balancing our 2 brain hemispheres is conducive of creative thinking

Our 2 brain hemispheres are functioning in quite different ways, both from the cognitive point of view and the emotional point of view: the left hemisphere is more optimistic, and analytical, whereas the right one tends to be more pessimistic, and more prone to big-picture thinking. 

The best situation for creative thinking is to have both hemispheres active at the same time, since we can approach a question through both angles simultaneously: analytical, factual, details-oriented, and verbal logic on the one hand, and big-picture, contextual and non-verbal logic on the other hand.

Most of the time, one hemisphere is dominant over the other, and this dominance switches on average every 2-3h, although the cycle time varies a lot. It is quite easy to know which one of our hemispheres is dominant, because when the right one is dominant, our breath through our left nostril is dominant over the right nostril, and vice-versa. This link between nasal breathing and hemisphere dominance is thought to be mediated by receptors in the nasal mucosa that detect the passage of air. 

Meditation practice has been shown to switch the brain activity from right to left, which can be useful if we have an over-dominant right hemisphere, leading to a pessimistic outlook and withdrawal from novelty.

Interestingly, there is also a very ancient breathing technique from Yoga called alternate nostril breathing, that lead to balancing the activity of the 2 brain hemispheres. This consists in breathing alternatively through each nostril by blocking 1 nostril after the other alternatively with a finger. 

Alternate nostril breathing has proven its benefits to reduce stress, in particular public speaking stress. It is also thought to improve our creative thinking capabilities by balancing our 2 brain hemispheres, in order to allow us to approach a question through both ways of thinking simultaneously.

For the readers who already have an established mindfulness practice, you may have noticed that creative ideas often come during your meditation. When you are trying to quiet your mind and free yourself from the bondage of thoughts and emotions, these insights can initially be annoying because they distract you from your object of focus. However, with practice we learn to be gentle with ourselves and recognize those insights as such. We can make a mental note to explore them later and we pursue our meditation, but when they are too good to miss, sometimes it is worth dropping our meditation to explore them.

Sources: 

Beaty R. et al., 2018. “Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity”. PNAS Jan 2018 

Kamath A. et al., 2017. “Effect of Alternate Nostril Breathing Exercise on Experimentally Induced Anxiety in Healthy Volunteers Using the Simulated Public Speaking Model: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study.” Biomed Res Int. 2017

Colzato L. et al., 2012. “Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking”. Front Psychol 2012

Amabile T. et al., 2002 “Time pressure and creativity in organizations – a longitudinal field study”, Harvard Business School working paper, 2002

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