Can Mindfulness Increase Creativity?

A summary of recent studies and research

How Mindfulness Impacts Creativity

There are several similarities between mindfulness and creativity, like fostering curiosity, being in the moment, and becoming aware of thoughts and feelings. But apart from sharing those similarities, can mindfulness practice actually increase creativity?

This question has been examined in several studies in the last 30 years, and it gained increased attention in the last decade with the popularity of mindfulness on the rise and the growing significance of creativity in business, work, and education.

A couple months ago, Rad Stulberg and Steve Magness released a study in which they examine the beginning and growth of Google’s mindfulness program. With burnout being one of Google’s biggest threats, in 2007 Chade-Meng Tan started the first 7-week mindfulness meditation course to help Google employees to relax and detach from work. The concept proved to be so valuable that it grew into a mindfulness program that now has a staff of 14 full-time employees. Not only did the mindfulness program help employees to avoid burnout, it turned out to boost creativity and innovation as well.

Mindfulness expert Palma Michel has a neurological explanation for this phenomenon. Stress activates the amygdala and mindfulness deactivates it.

“When our ancient hunter-gather brain, particularly the amygdala is active, we become reactive, irrational and make impulsive decisions without considering the consequences. Our amygdala is on high alert when we are tired or in situations that we appraise as stressful, uncomfortable or unpleasant. In those moments there is no space in our minds. It is impossible for our brains to get into a relaxed alpha wave state, which is required for those “light bulb” moments.”

There is a neurological connection between stress and creativity — or rather the lack of it.

Short and long-term effects of mindfulness on creativity

Can even a short 10-minute meditation boost creativity? This was the question posed in a recent study from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Researchers found that a group of participants that had meditated before starting a creative task demonstrated a 22% wider range of ideas than the non-meditating groups. Even  short moment of stillness seems to create a calmness of the mind that is beneficial for creative activities. If 10 minutes has a noticeable effect, then what are the long-term ramifications that a longer period of  mindfulness  might have on creativity?

The journalist and author Danny Penman presents in his book Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World  a long-term program to enhance creativity. He found out that mindfulness helps in three aspects. First, it helps with divergent thinking — that is, the ability to generate many ideas. Second, it helps to focus attention. And third, it increases resilience towards failure and critical doubt.

There, again, is a neurological explanation of why a consistent mindfulness practice positively impacts creativity. A series of studies have shown that mindfulness practice “appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the ‘me’ centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions.” (Alice Walton in Forbes article: 7Ways Mediation can actually Change the Brain)

Most of these neurological changes directly benefit the ability to be creative.  Or, to phrase it differently, fMRIs of highly creative people show very similar activities in the brain as in mindfulness, like stronger connections between different brain regions.

Jenn Fairbank, founder of Cornerstone Mindfulness, explains in my recent podcast how the brain is altered through long-term mindfulness practice. Most of these neurological changes directly benefit the ability to be creative.

How do different types of mindfulness affect creativity differently?

Some studies have recently gone more in depth to examine the effect of specific types of mindfulness on creativity. In frontiers In Psychology, Cognitive psychologist Lorenza S. Colzato describes the findings of a study that was led by the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition at Leiden University:

“In this study we investigate the possible impact of meditation based on focused-attention (FA) and meditation based on open-monitoring (OM) on creativity tasks tapping into convergent and divergent thinking. We show that FA meditation and OM meditation exert specific effect on creativity. First, OM meditation induces a control state that promotes divergent thinking, a style of thinking that allows many new ideas of being generated. Second, FA meditation does not sustain convergent thinking, the process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem. We suggest that the enhancement of positive mood induced by meditating has boosted the effect in the first case and counteracted in the second case.”

In the years since this study was published several researches started to point out that merely stating that mindfulness practice enhances creativity is an oversimplification. Creativity is a process that includes different phases, like preparation, ideation, illumination, and verification. Each one of these phases requires a certain kind of thinking and different skillsets. And on the other side, there are also different types of mindfulness practices with different intentions and methods, like for example the open-monitoring versus the focused-attention meditation that were described above.

A meta analysis was published in 2016 that evaluated 20 studies between 1977 and 2015 about the mindfulness creativity link. The results again show that not all types of mindfulness training impact creativity to the same degree. UT professor Art Markman explains the findings:

“The aspect of mindfulness that helps people reserve judgment on thoughts was more strongly correlated with divergent thinking than the aspect that helps people become aware of their thoughts. There are probably two reasons for this difference. First, reserving judgment about thoughts is helpful for creativity, because it allows people to pursue new ideas further than they might otherwise. Second, the awareness of thoughts often decreases mind-wandering. Mind-wandering is bad for tasks that require focused attention, but can actually be good for divergent thinking. So, the awareness element of mindfulness may actually work against creativity a bit.”


There is a broad consensus that mindfulness can positively impact creativity. Long-term mindfulness practice is beneficial for creativity because it develops the same areas in the brain that are strengthened through creative activities.

To maximize the effect that mindfulness can have on creativity it helps to differentiate between types of mindfulness practice and also between the stages of the creative process. To enhance creativity one must be specific and intentional in choosing the appropriate type of mindfulness that matches a distinct phase of the creative process.

In the last article of this 4-part series  I will shed a light onto what types of mindfulness are helpful for which part of the creative process.


Can mindfulness increase creativity?


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