Meditation techniques are quite old. Almost every religion has developed processes to help people to calm their minds and to tune out distractions from the outside world. In the past 20 years, there has been a growing recognition that spending some time in meditation and contemplation is a valuable part of people's lives. It can help to reduce stress both by calming people in the moment and helping to break the cycle of repetitive thoughts that often maintains anxiety.
A central part of meditation exercises is a focus on mindfulness. The idea is that focusing internally helps people to become more aware of their thoughts. Mindfulness also helps people to create a habit to think without imposing judgments or values on thoughts.
Because of the success of mindfulness techniques in many areas, many people in practical settings and in the psychology research community have wondered whether mindfulness enhances creativity. On the surface, of course it would seem that mindfulness ought to help make people more creative. Anything that supports the free flow of thought without immediate evaluation ought to help people to generate new ideas. An obvious barrier to creativity is that many people edit their ideas and reject off-the-wall possibilities before exploring them to see if they have any merit.
Enough studies have been done now to look across a variety of experiments and assess influences of mindfulness on creativity. The technique for assessing experimental effects across studies is called meta-analysis. An interesting meta-analysis on mindfulness and creativity was published earlier this year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
This meta-analysis examined 20 different papers relating mindfulness to creativity. Some studies looked at people's self-report of how often they engage in mindfulness techniques. Others looked at experimental studies in which people were assigned to engage in mindfulness activities or a control activity.
A central aspect of creativity is divergent thinking, which refers to the ability to come up with lots of different ideas. Divergent thinking is important, because many studies demonstrate that the people who come up with the most creative ideas are typically those who come up with the most ideas overall. That is quantity leads to quality.
The meta-analysis suggests that there is a small influence of mindfulness techniques on divergent thinking. That is, people who engage in mindfulness exercises tend to do a better job of generating more ideas than those who do not. They are better, but not much better.
The meta-analysis also explored aspects of mindfulness techniques. The aspect of mindfulness that helps people reserve judgment on thoughts was more strongly correlated with divergent thinking than the aspect that helps people become aware of their thoughts.
There are probably two reasons for this difference. First, reserving judgment about thoughts is helpful for creativity, because it allows people to pursue new ideas further than they might otherwise. Second, the awareness of thoughts often decreases mind-wandering. Mind-wandering is bad for tasks that require focused attention, but can actually be good for divergent thinking. So, the awareness element of mindfulness may actually work against creativity a bit.
Ultimately, mindfulness has proven to be a valuable addition to many people's lives. It can make them more focused and less stressed. If you are looking to become a creative genius, though, mindfulness is not going to be a magic technique to help you get there.