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

Creativity is the result of toggling between two main modes of thought. So what exactly are these modes and how do we take the middle path?

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.

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.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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