Mindfulness is not Always Good for Creativity


Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. – Steve Jobs


Mindfulness is the ability to focus on what is transpiring in the present moment. It involves a greater emphasis on attention to the immediate stimulus environment. Mindful people generally have better attentional abilities and have fewer intrusive thoughts and less mind wandering. As a result mindfulness has been shown to be associated with differences in thought processes (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/cognition/). Most of the time these differences are associated with beneficial results, but sometimes they can lead to negative outcomes including a greater tendency to have false memories (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/10/15/meditation-is-not-always-a-good-thing/). Given the differences in thinking and attention the question arises as to the effect of mindfulness on creativity. Does it make the individual more creative or does it interfere with the creative process?


In today’s Research News article “Mind wandering “Ahas” versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creative solutions”



Zedelius and colleagues investigate the relationship between mindfulness and creativity. They measured mindfulness and then tested creativity with a Compound Remote Associations test. In this test the participant is asked to discover a word that connects three other words. For example the individual is given “ache, hunter, cabbage.”  An appropriate response might be “head” which links the words ‘head ache’, ‘head hunter’, and ‘head of cabbage.’ This solution can be arrived at by carefully analyzing the words and recalling words that are associated with each one to find a common associate, or it can be solved with insight where the solution just suddenly appears. After a solution was found the participants were asked to identify which of these strategies they used or a combination of both.


Zedelius and colleagues found that when the problem was solved by insight, mindfulness was associated with poorer performance. On the other hand when it was solved analytically mindfulness was associated with better performance. In other words, mindfulness improved analytic thinking but interfered with insightful thinking. These results make sense if it is considered that analytical thinking requires focused attention which is what is promoted by mindfulness. On the other hand, insightful thinking, thinking outside of the box, often involves allowing the mind to wander in different directions bringing in new and different possible solutions. Since mindfulness is associated with less mind wandering, it seems logical that it would interfere with the process of insight.


So, mindfulness is not a uniformly good thing. Although we usually think of mind wandering and being off task as a bad thing to be inhibited, that mind wandering, in fact, may be the source of insightful creativity. Our schools focus on analytical thinking and many are adopting mindfulness training into their curriculum to improve attention and school performance. But, as desirable as this may be, it may come at the cost of lowering creative insights. Perhaps, there is a need to train the student to be mindful when appropriate but to let the mind wander at other times to promote creativity.


So, practice mindfulness but realize that it may make you less insightful.


“To be and to be creative are synonymous. It is impossible to be and not to be creative. But that impossible thing has happened, that ugly phenomenon has happened, because all your creative sources have been plugged, blocked, destroyed, and your whole energy has been forced into some activity that the society thinks is going to pay.” – Osho
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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