Neuroscientists claim that our brains are more malleable than they once believed. “A decade ago we thought you got what you were given at birth and that was pretty much it,” says Joshua Reynolds, a psychologist at New York University who studies intellectual performance. “But now we know that the number of brain cells can increase throughout your life through neurogenisis. There’s great evidence that shows if you really work on a skill, the part of the brain associated with that skill grows.”
The Sunday magazine section of last week’s New York Times had a fascinating article on this research — Can You Build a (Better Brain?) — which I hope to use in a future post. But for now, let’s just look at a recent report that is an example of the many studies being done on “neuroplasticity” — the ability of the brain to change based on experience.
Meditation and Creativity
Like many Westerners these days, I’ve been an on-again, off-again practitioner of meditation. But I’ve been meditating regularly since my Parkinson’s diagnosis three years ago. I’m looking for anything that might enhance my health and well-being, and regular mindfulness meditation seems to do just that.
Most nights, when I get up at 3 or 4am for a bathroom visit, I pull out a straight-backed chair I keep in the bedroom, plop a pillow in my lap, position my fingers in the secret handshake, and monitor my breathing as I meditate. These quiet sessions, which can last an hour, have become a special time for me.
As I’ve mentioned before, the quiet time is often accompanied by spurts of problem-solving thoughts and bursts of new, creative ideas. I figured this phenomenon was peculiar to me — a combination of the meditation with my bedtime dose of serotonin-boosting 5-HTP. But now comes a report on a new study by a group of Dutch researchers on creativity and meditation.
Findings of New Study on Meditation and Problem Solving
The study was published in the April 19 issue of Frontiers in Cognition. It explored the influences of two different types of meditation on the brain’s two main thought processes used in problem-solving.
The two types of meditation were:
- Focused awareness, where the individual focuses on a particular thought or object.
- Open monitoring, where the individual is receptive to all the thoughts and sensations being experienced without focusing attention on any particular concept or object.
The two thought processes for solving problems are:
- Divergent thinking, which allows many new ideas to be generated and different solutions to be explored, sort of like brainstorming.
- Convergent thinking, where the focus is on generating one correct solution to a problem, similar to the type of accurate, logical thinking needed to take intelligence tests where not much creativity is required.
This study was relatively small, involving 19 experienced meditators. The results of the tests showed that after open monitoring meditation, the participants performed better in divergent thinking and generated more new ideas. After focused awareness meditation, the participants showed no performance impact on either type of problem solving.