The practice of meditation has seen a tremendous increase in the western world since the 60s (Murphy and Donavon, 1997
). Scientific interest in meditation has also significantly grown in the past years (Cahn and Polich, 2006
) and increasing evidence suggests the efficacy of meditation in health care and the field of stress management (Chiesa and Seretti, 2009
) and some potency to enhance positive feelings (Chang et al., 2004
) increase pain tolerance, and reduce anxiety (Wachholtz and Pargament, 2005
). Thus, meditation seems to be an effective tool for enhancing general well-being.
In previous studies, meditation training has been shown to enhance some cognitive processes, such as the allocation of attentional resources in attention-demanding tasks (Brown et al., 1984a
; Slagter et al., 2007
). Less clear is the connection between meditation and creativity, to which the present study was devoted (see Horan, 2009
, for a review). While some studies found evidence for a strong positive impact of meditation practice on creativity (Orme-Johnson and Granieri, 1977
; Orme-Johnson et al., 1977
; Ball, 1980
), others found only a weak association or no effect at all (Cowger, 1974
; Domino, 1977
). However, the methodological diversity across these studies with regard to sample characteristics and type of meditation is considerable, which renders it questionable whether they were actually assessing the same construct and processes. Moreover, there is still no mechanistic model explaining how creative processes operate and how different type of meditations might affect these operations, which in view of the lack of conceptual clarity may not be surprising. To address this issue, we tried to avoid addressing meditation and creativity as a whole but, rather, focused on particular, relatively well-defined meditation techniques and specific subcomponents of creative performance. More concretely, we investigated the impact of focused-attention (FA) meditation and open-monitoring (OM) meditation on creativity tasks tapping into convergent and divergent thinking.
Regarding meditation, FA and OM meditation represent the main techniques of Buddhist meditation practices (Lutz et al., 2008
), even though many exercises represent mixtures of these two types (Cahn and Polich, 2006
). In FA meditation, the individual focuses on a particular item, thought, or object. Everything else that might tend to attract attention, such as bodily sensations, environmental noise, or intrusive thoughts, is to be actively ignored by redirecting attention constantly back on the same focus point. In OM meditation, instead, the individual is open to perceive and observe any sensation or thought without focusing on a concept in the mind or a fixed item; therefore attention is flexible and unrestricted.
Regarding creativity, Guilford (1950
) has distinguished between two main ingredients of most creative activities: divergent and convergent thinking – even though other processes may also contribute (Wallas, 1926
). Divergent thinking is taken to represent a style of thinking that allows many new ideas being generated, in a context where more than one solution is correct. The probably best example is a brainstorming session, which has the aim of generating as many ideas on a particular issue as possible. Guilford’s (1967
) Alternate Uses Task (AUT) to assess the productivity of divergent thinking follows the same scenario: participants are presented with a particular object, such as a pen, and they are to generate as many possible uses of this object as possible. In contrast, convergent thinking is considered a process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem. It emphasizes speed and relies on high accuracy and logic. Mednick’s (1962
) Remote Associates Task (RAT) that aims to assess convergent thinking fits with this profile: participants are presented with three unrelated words, such as “time,” “hair,” and “stretch,” and are to identify the common associate (“long”). Interestingly for our purposes, performance on the AUT and the RAT were found to be uncorrelated (Akbari Chermahini and Hommel, 2010
) and differently affected by the same experimental manipulations (Hommel et al., submitted), which supports Guilford’s (1967
) suggestion that convergent and divergent thinking represent different components of human creativity.
) and Hommel et al. (submitted) have argued that convergent and divergent thinking call for different cognitive-control states. Based on general considerations regarding the processes underlying human decision-making (for a review, see Bogacz, 2007
) and on the possible impact of practice on these processes (Colzato et al., 2008
), Hommel and colleagues suggested that two parameters may play a central role in generating creative acts. For one, people may exert strong or weak top-down control (in the sense of Duncan, 2001
) on the process that is searching for the solution(s) of a given creative problem, such as an item in a creativity task. Strong top-down control focuses the search on very few or just one item that satisfies a number of well-defined criteria, whereas weak top-down control broadens the search space to activate many items that satisfy loosely defined criteria. For another, people may be able to implement a strong or weak degree of mutual inhibition between alternative representations, which again increases or decreases the competition for selection. From this perspective, divergent thinking (as assessed by the AUT) would be likely to require or benefit from a control state that provides a minimum of top-down control and local competition, so that the individual can easily and quickly “jump” from one thought to another in an only weakly guided fashion (Hommel, 2012
; Hommel et al., submitted). In contrast, convergent thinking (as assessed by the RAT) would be likely to benefit from a strong top-down bias, which would heavily constrain and direct the search process, and from strong local competition (as only one solution can be correct)1
Colzato et al. (2008
) have argued that practicing tasks and skills might establish chronic biases of cognitive-control toward states or state parameters that these tasks and skills require. In their own study, this argument was applied to bilinguals, who were assumed to acquire a bias toward relatively strong top-down control and local competition, so to stay within one language and not occasionally switching to another. Colzato et al. predicted that this bias might generalize to other, non-lingual tasks that benefit or suffer from the hypothesized cognitive-control bias. This prediction was confirmed by the observation that bilinguals perform more poorly than monolinguals in a task that requires distributed-attention. Using the same theoretical framework, Colzato et al. (2010a
) showed that practicing Calvinists, who can be assumed to have acquired a bias toward focused top-down control (Colzato et al., 2008
), perform worse than well-matched atheists in a distributed-attention task. Applying this theoretical framework to the practice of meditation, one would expect that particular types of meditation practice (OM vs. FA) establish particular biases toward particular cognitive-control states. Given its goal and characteristics, OM meditation would seem to call for rather weak and “allowing” top-down guidance (Lutz et al., 2008
), which allows jumping from one thought to another. In contrast, FA meditation would seem to call for a strong degree of top-down control, which steers and efficiently constrains the search for the right thought or concept. If so, engaging in OM meditation should facilitate subsequent performance in tasks that require weak, “distributed” control (as presumably required by the AUT task) while engaging in FA meditation should be beneficial for subsequent performance in tasks requiring a more focused control style (as presumably required by the RAT task).
We investigated this hypothesis by having participants practicing OM- and FA-type meditation, in addition to a third visualization exercise that was considered as a baseline, and then performing a divergent thinking and a convergent thinking task. We expected that OM meditation practice would improve divergent thinking but not convergent thinking, while FA meditation practice should have the opposite effect. A complication that can be expected to work against this prediction is that any kind of practice remotely related to meditation or relaxation techniques are likely to improve mood (Chang et al., 2004
), which again has been found to facilitate divergent thinking but not convergent thinking (Akbari Chermahini and Hommel, in press
). This suggests that the benefits of OM meditation on divergent thinking might be easier to demonstrate than the benefits of FA meditation on convergent thinking. To check whether mood is affected by the two meditation techniques, and whether it is affected the same way, we also assessed perceived mood.