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How Sahaja meditation Promotes Creativity
If someone asked you to define creativity, you might find it hard to offer a specific answer. Creativity tends to be highly subjective, after all. But we know it when we see it. Psychologists tell us it’s the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular context, or to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in an original, non-obvious way. But how it happens, exactly, and why some of us seem to have it and some of us don’t, is more complicated.
What’s going on inside our brains when we’re engaged in creative thinking? There is no one neurochemical or brain circuit that governs whether you’ll be creative or not. Some research has found that creativity results from various combinations (theoretically infinite, perhaps) of four different kinds of mechanisms or creative insights:
- two modes of thought (deliberate or spontaneous)
- two types of information (emotional or cognitive)
Each of these four mechanisms is thought to be mediated by a distinct brain circuit, neural loops that terminate in the working memory buffer of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which holds the contents of consciousness — knowledge. The prefrontal cortex is the region of the frontal lobe that’s responsible for thinking and problem-solving, as well as providing us with a sense of self.
Knowledge and creative thinking interact to generate solutions, and, of course, this relationship can change over time. But regardless of how a creative insight initially came about, circuits in the brain’s prefrontal cortex make that creative insight fully conscious, evaluate its appropriateness, and ultimately implement its creative expression, transforming creative insights into creative behavior (Dietrich, 2004).
Can meditation make us more creative?
Whether we’re talking about writing an opera, painting a masterpiece, or inventing the next great tech gadget, creativity is the result of neurophysiological processes, a collective of different processes, in fact, that operate in tandem disparate areas of the brain. These processes are influenced by meditation.
Meditation can do for the mind what working out at the gym does for the body: It makes your mind both stronger and more flexible, essential qualities of a creative mind.
Here are some highlights of how meditation promotes creativity…
- Fosters an optimum consciousness that’s conducive to creative insight, connects you to creative, imaginative space beyond the conventional
- Connects you to your authentic self, increasing self-awareness, emotional honesty and acceptance
- Strengthens and sharpens attention, concentration and focus
- Relieves performance anxiety and boosts self-confidence, quiets the noise and the inner critic
- The brain becomes better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, better organized and more efficient
Sahaja Meditation’s Role in Creativity
Emotional honesty lies at the core of many of the world’s finest works of creativity, whether they be songs, books, paintings or a clever website. To be emotionally honest, we must first be emotionally aware — self-aware. The more open we are to both new experiences and our own true emotional experiences, the easier it becomes to express them. Meditation teaches us to focus on the present moment, which enhances self-awareness — the ability to observe and monitor your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening and to be in touch with your actual felt experience. Meditation transcends ordinary planes of consciousness and connects you with your true, authentic inner self.
In enhancing self-awareness, Sahaja meditation promotes introspection and intuitive insight. Intuitive understanding or insight is a process by which information that normally lies outside the range of conscious awareness is perceived by our psychophysiological systems, which can be continously enhanced and fine-tuned by regular meditation. Intuitive perception and human creativity are closely linked (Andreasen, 2005). (See: How Sahaja Meditation Improves Sensory Perception, Dexterity, Coordination and Fine Motor Skills.)
Sahaja meditation also has been found to boost mood and increase positive thoughts and feelings. Several studies have shown that positive mood enhances overall problem-solving, and specifically increases the likelihood of solving them with creative insight (e.g., Subramaniam et al, 2009). Positive mood was found to prepare the brain for engaging in creative problem-processing. Other studies have shown that positive mood broadens the scope of our attention to both external visual space and internal conceptual space (Rowe et al., 2007), setting the stage for creative thinking.
Sahaja meditation opens up new dimensions in your life, and helps you notice, appreciate and understand aspects of your self like never before. Creativity blossoms.
You may find yourself exploring new dimensions and activities that before, you only appreciated from a distance.
Letting go of the conventional
Creativity is not always about coming up with new ideas. Often, it’s about letting the mind roam freely, giving it permission to ignore conventional solutions and explore uncharted territory. This freedom requires an ability — and willingness — to suppress habitual responses. It involves a willingness to take risks. This capacity to let go has been found to involve a dampening of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter involved in triggering the fear response (Heilman, 2005). Norepinephrine also plays a role in long-term memory retrieval, thus its decrease during creative thinking may help the brain temporarily suppress what it already knows, encouraging us to explore new ideas and make novel connections.
Meditation has been found to decrease norepinephrine (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003), which might both allow us to let go of the conventional, as well as to suppress the fear response and our internal censor — that inner critical voice that comments on your performance. Meditation helps us let go of past conditionings, those old voices that replay again and again in our minds… “You have no creative talent…” “You can’t make a living doing that!”
Turning off the censor
If you over-think a jump shot, you fall out of the zone and become more likely to miss the shot. If you censor or criticize your own performance during, for example, musical improvisation, you suppress creativity. Developing an ability to suppress those self-monitoring brain mechanisms promotes the free flow of novel ideas and impulses.
Studies have shown that during improvisation and bursts of creativity, the brain’s self-monitor shuts down and allows uncensored creativity to flow. One fMRI study found that when jazz musicians were engaged in a creative and spontaneous act of improvisation, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the large portion of the prefrontal cortex that’s involved in monitoring one’s performance, shut down completely, while activity increased in the smaller medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-initiated thoughts and behaviors (Limb & Braun, 2008).
During improvisation, sensory areas (touch, hearing and vision) in the musicians’ brains all showed increased neural activity, suggesting that the brain automatically ramps up sensorimotor processing to prepare for creative tasks. Interestingly, brain activity was found to be nearly identical for both simple and complex improvisations. The changes in brain activity were related to creativity, rather than to how hard the task was.
Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness gives us the ability to regulate our attention to focus on the present moment with curiosity, openness and acceptance without the stress of judging it. It is a state of nonjudgmental awareness that helps prepare the mind for the creative process.
We are fully present and alive in the moment. In this present-centered awareness, each thought, feeling and sensation that arises in one’s attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as is. We can observe our thoughts and feelings merely as events in our minds, without over-identifying with them or reacting to them automatically or habitually. This calm, dispassionate state of self-observation inserts, in essence, a “space” between our perceptions and our responses. That open space allows us to respond to situations reflectively, rather than reflexively (Bishop, 2004). And it allows room for creativity to blossom.
Meditation ultimately increases self-confidence, which promotes self-acceptance and supports future creativity. Meditation helps clarify what matters most to us and encourages us to be more inner-directed and intrinsically motivated (rather than extrinsically motivated), thus we are less vulnerable to others’ criticisms of out creative work.
Shutting out the noise
Hundreds of ideas may float through our minds on the average day, many of them little more than white noise. Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness silences the noise and empties the mind of clutter, resulting in a mind that’s free to create. Developing a clear mind through meditation allows us to field a deeper flow of ideas without getting swept away into frenzied mental distractions that have no relevance or usefulness.
One study found that the brains of creative people are more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment while others’ brains shut out this same information through a process known as “latent inhibition,” the unconscious ability to ignore stimuli that experience tells us are irrelevant. The average person may classify the object and forget about it, even though that object is actually much more complex and interesting than it appears. Creative individuals, by contrast, were found to be more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition. Always open to new possibilities, they remained in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment. They were able to cut out other sensory input and boost the ‘signal-to-noise ratio’ in order to retrieve creative insights from the subconscious. But to do this successfully, their brains prepared by automatically shutting down activity in the visual cortex for an instant — the equivalent of closing your eyes to block out distractions so that you can concentrate better (Kounios & Beeman, 2009).
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Diverge or Converge?
Meditation can have a long-lasting influence on human cognition, including how well we connect ideas. One study investigated the influence of different types of meditative techniques on two main aspects of creativity, divergent and convergent styles of thinking (Colzato et al, 2012):
- Divergent thinking allows many new, uncommon ideas to be generated. Often measured using the Alternate Uses Task method in which participants must think of as many novel uses as possible for a particular object; e.g., a pen, a brick, a paper clip.
- Convergent thinking is a process of generating one possible, common solution for a particular problem. Often measured using the Remote Associates Task method where three unrelated words are presented to participants who must identify the common link — i.e., one word that could be combined with each of these three to form a familiar term. For example, the common link for time, hair, and stretch is long. For crab, pine and sauce, the answer is apple. For eye, gown and basket, the answer is ball.
Turns out, not all forms of meditation have the same effect on creativity. Researchers used creativity tasks that measured convergent and divergent thinking to compare the influence of Open Monitoring and Focused Attention meditation techniques on creative thinking. In Open Monitoring meditation, the individual is open and receptive to all the thoughts and sensations experienced, merely observing them in a detached way as they rise and fall. (Sahaja more closely resembles this form of meditation.) Focused Attention meditation involves one-pointed concentration, focusing on a fixed object (e.g., a particular thought, a small coin) and is common in, for example, some forms of Buddhist meditation.
Researchers found that Open Monitoring meditators became better at divergent thinking (multiple uncommon ideas) and generated more new ideas, but Focused Attention meditators did not.
Also, Focused Attention meditation was not able to sustain convergent thinking and was found to have no significant effect on convergent thinking (one common solution) that lead to resolving a problem.
Researchers concluded that Open Monitoring meditation restructures cognitive processing to a degree that would be robust and general enough to influence performance in novel, logically-unrelated tasks. Open Monitoring meditation led to a broader distribution of potential brain resources and a cognitive-control state that was less focused and less “exclusive,” which helped facilitate jumping from one thought to another, as is required in divergent thinking. This correlates with other studies showing that Open Monitoring meditation reduces problems with distributed attention, such as in attentional blink, a phenomenon that occurs when two pieces of information are presented to us in close succession and our brains don’t detect the second piece of information because they’re busy processing the first (Slagter et al, 2007). (For more on attentional blink, please see Attentional Blink: Meditation Makes the Brain’s Information Processing More Efficient.)
In the Flow
Meditation’s capacity to disengage attention results in a resting attentiveness with global, nonspecific meta-awareness (awareness of awareness) — what might be thought of as the essential consciousness.
Engaging attention to the limit with a total participation in the present moment, and with no effort, sense of time, or self-consciousness, results in a conscious totality: the “flow” state. We are at our happiest and most fulfilled when we are “in flow.” We are deriving intrinsic pleasure from an activity; for example, a musician might “lose herself” in her music. Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi describes it, is that unified, energized mental state in which one becomes fully immersed in an activity while experiencing energized focus, spontaneous joy, and emotional alignment with the process (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Characteristics of flow include: sharper focus, enhanced perception, feeling liberated, self-confidence and absence of fear, and a sense that no time had passed. Flow is what we might call “being in the zone.” You know it when it happens. It is optimal experience, the ideal performance state. And it can be inspiring, exhilarating and transformative. You have the sensation that your brain is “firing on all cylinders.”
Meditation, in fact, has been found to actually alter the fundamental electrical balance between the brain’s cerebral hemispheres (Cahn and Polich, 2006), increasing synchrony between emotional processing and reason. The regular Sahaja meditator’s brain becomes better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, better organized and more efficient. Meditation can also dramatically increase focus, alertness and attention span, even for monotonous tasks. Sahaja meditation has been shown to increase activation of — and have “up-regulating” effects on — fronto-parietal attention networks (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a, b, 2003).
Meditation takes advantage of the brain’s natural plasticity to create structural changes to the brain, thus lasting changes in cognitive processing, including the ability to think creatively. Creative works generally require accurate perception, coordination and dexterity in fine motor movements — all of which first depends on the quality of one’s attention.
Sahaja meditation has been found to sharpen various aspects of sensory perception, such as: perceptual sensitivity and clarity; visual reaction time, as well as dexterity, hand-eye coordination, balance and fine motor skills — essential elements of many creative endeavors. (For more, see How Sahaja Meditation Improves Sensory Perception, Dexterity, Coordination and Fine Motor Skills.)
One 2016 Sahaja meditation study using the brain structure imaging techniques of MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume (GMV) across their entire brains, a phenomenon that has not previously been found in practitioners of any other meditation technique. (No GMV increases were found in non-meditators.)
Increased gray matter volume is known to correlate with enhancing function. The study also found, in the brains of Sahaja practitioners, greater GMV in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with, among other traits, sustained attention, cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, and interoceptive perception, as well as greater GMV in left hemispheric regions (ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and left insula) involved in attention, improved performance in cognitive tasks and emotional intelligence (Hernández set al, 2016).
The experience of flow results from peak experiences, a term coined by psychologist Abraham Maslow (Maslow, 1962). Peak experiences are aha moments, those flashes of sudden insight that invent an idea, solve a problem, or reinterpret a situation. They are moments of ecstasy, harmony, awe, wonder, and a sense of limitless horizons, followed by the understanding that the experience had deep meaning that could be applied to everyday life. These moments are what we think of as “the epiphany,” luminous, transient moments during which we have a sense of oneness with the universe.
Maslow believed that peak experiences were characteristic of self-actualizing people, individuals who have an ongoing motivational drive to grow and fulfill their talents and potential. Creatives — and high self-actualizers — have a fresh, open way of looking at things. They are continually developing and becoming, rather than attempting to achieve a fixed state wherein all problems are solved. Creatives are, in fact, often high self-actualizers.
Maslow also identified a longer-term form of peak experience: the plateau experience. Plateau experiences include elements of peak experiences, such as awe, wonder, mystery, surprise, or “aesthetic shock,” but they’re “constant rather than climactic.” For the plateauer, heights or peaks of experience have become part of everyday experience, or as Maslow described it, one perceives “under the aspect of eternity and becomes mythic, poetic, and symbolic about ordinary things.” Ordinary things may not be special or exceptional, but one begins to live “in a world of miracles all the time.”
Doesn’t this sound like a fitting description of our most inspired creative experiences?
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