Meditation May Not Be Giving You the Creative Spark You Think It Does

Imagination Institute Director, University of Pennsylvania
There isn't a single answer to becoming more creative. Instead, it's a constant balancing act between two fundamental brain states, says creativity expert Scott Barry Kaufman. Whereas animals live constantly in the present, humans have the cognitive power to plan for the future. But constantly being in one state or the other prevents the cross-pollination of thoughts that is the essence of creativity.
  • Transcript


Scott Barry Kaufman: The way human evolution has worked is that humans are constantly toggling between two main modes of thought: a mode of thought where we're focused on the moment for survival issues, because if you miss like a saber-toothed tiger coming after you and you're daydreaming, you're not going to be daydreaming much longer — do you know what I'm saying? But, we also have this other really important mode of thought on the downtime when we don't have to be vigilant about our environment, where we're constantly planning for the future. Our brain has evolved to toggle between two main modes of thought, the moment processing and future planning. That's actually what — the planning part is actually what makes humans uniquely human because other animals have a hard time transcending the present moment. So we're constantly toggling between these two things. And I would argue that for optimal creativity you need to strike a balance; you need to come to what we call the middle way. And in the middle way is knowing when it's contextually appropriate to pay attention to the present environment for survival, as well as gathering information, and allow yourself when that isn't necessary to dip into your inner stream of consciousness and plan for your future. Two critical brain networks that are involved in this toggling process between the present moment and our future planning is the default mode network, which I like to refer to as the imagination network because all the kinds of processes associated with this brain network I think are associated with imagination in some way. From like perspective taking, and when I'm taking the perspective of someone else, I'm imagining what that person is thinking, right? To daydreaming, to thinking about the future, you know, the future planning. It's all imagination. A lot of it has to do with social imagination, a particular kind of imagination but I think it's definitely having to do with imagination. And the other major brain network is the executive attention network.

Executive attention network is really crucial for working memory, such as holding information in your mind and consciousness and processing and manipulating it, as well as focusing on the outside world. It's also important, by the way, for focusing on your inner world. So you can be a mindful daydreamer, and when you're a mindful daydreamer both of those brain networks actually couple together because you're focusing that limited spotlight of attention inward and so your daydreams might become more focused when these two brain networks are collaborating with each other. So these brain networks are not always at odds with each other. There is a unique state of consciousness when both of those networks are on the same level of the seesaw. Right? And that seems to be creativity. Really, really expert meditators have been shown to have an amazing executive attention network. They're really, really amazing at being able to focus, but that doesn't necessarily relate to creativity. You could be the greatest most proficient meditator in the universe and not have one iota of creativity. I think that's the honest truth. I go to some of these conferences; you can go to some of these mindfulness conferences and they're all just like zombies like looking at paying attention to the speaker and you look at them and they're all so laser focused on the speaker because they've honed their mindful attention. And it drives me crazy sometimes because I just want to scream daydream! Like it's okay! Like to go back in and make meaning out of that experience and then go back out. It's that toggling process that creators are really good at. So I wouldn't make a case that I think too extreme in either direction, either too extreme daydreamers, and there are chronic daydreamers; they need help. A lot of them, like, see psychiatrists because they can't stop daydreaming. And I think on the other end it too we can become a too mindful society where we lose fact of the importance of dipping back in to create meaning out of that outer world that we're mindful of.