Open-Monitoring – the key to creativity

Mindfulness has many benefits – both for wellbeing and for performance.  In this post, I want to investigate how mindfulness can increase creativity.  To be clear, by “creativity” I mean the ability to generate original ideas or to solve problems in an efficient and novel way.

One of the most definitive studies on this subject was conducted in 2012 by Lorenza Colzato, a Dutch cognitive psychologist at the Institute for Psychological Research and Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition at Leiden University. Here.

The research team had a small group of novices practice two forms of mindfulness meditation:
1) “open-monitoring”, which involves observing and noting phenomena in the present moment and keeping attention flexible and unrestricted,
and 2) “focused attention”, which stresses concentrating on a single object, such as breathing, and ignoring other stimuli.

Subjects took part in either “open monitoring mediation” or “focussed attention meditation” and were then assessed by each of:

  • Remote Association Task (Convergent Thinking) – participants are presented with three unrelated words (such as time, hair, and stretch) and are asked to find a common associate (long).
  • Alternate Uses Task (Divergent Thinking) – participants were asked to list as many possible uses for six common household items (brick, shoe, newspaper, pen, towel, bottle).

The responses from the assessments were assessed for Originality, Fluency, Flexibility and Elaboration.

Colzato and her team discovered that “Open-Monitoring Meditation” (observing and noting phenomena in the present moment and keeping attention flexible and unrestricted) was far more effective in stimulating divergent thinking…  a key driver of creativity.

Two years later, another Dutch psychologist, Matthijs Baas, expanded on Colzato’s work and demonstrated the importance of specific mindfulness skills in the creative process. (Here ) The skills were:

  1. observation, the ability to observe internal phenomena (such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions) and external stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, etc.);
  2. acting with awareness, engaging in activities with undivided attention;
  3. description, being able to describe phenomena without analysing conceptually; and
  4. accepting without judgment, being non-evaluative about present-moment experience.

A major finding was that high observation scores were the only consistently reliable predictor of creativity. The skill of observation, is enhanced by “Open-monitoring Meditation”; which not only improves working memory, it also increases cognitive flexibility and reduces cognitive rigidity—all of which are critical to the creative process.

Matthijs Baas said “The ability to observe is closely related to openness to experience, a personality trait that several studies have shown to be one of the most robust indicators of creative success A state of conscious awareness resulting from living in the moment is not sufficient for creativity to come about. To be creative, you need to have, or be trained in, the ability to observe, notice, and attend to phenomena that pass your mind’s eye.”


I think that this makes sense – it may be that to be creative we need to “glide” through the facts or the options that occur to us without becoming too connected to with them… so that we are able to consider different perspectives and the wider possibilities that may be available to us.  This is reminiscent of the mindfulness practice whereby we simple observe our emotions without judgement:

“We can imagine our thoughts and emotions as a river rushing through a stretch of rapids – and we may find ourselves being tossed around…  and pulled under or hitting rocks… yet ‘mindfulness’ is like being able to stand on the edge of the river bank and watch the currents and eddies within the river… without becoming overwhelmed.”

So, the research shows that our creativity is enhanced by an aptitude for “Open Monitoring” i.e. “to observe and note phenomena – external stimuli or internal thoughts and emotions – in the present moment yet keeping attention flexible and unrestricted”. The good news is that this can be developed through the practice of “Open-Monitoring Meditation”.

Reducing depression – MBCT changes the brain  to reduce self-blame and increase self-compassion

The problem with conditions like stress, anxiety and depression is that when people experience such an episode they establish “though pathways” that spiral downwards. …and then… in the future, when they encounter a “trigger” situation, they slide down the same pathway reinforcing it… and so on… making further episodes more and more likely. And in many cases the trigger doesn’t have to be something big or catastrophic – it could be some relatively minor setback or stressful situation that triggers thoughts leading to stress symptoms …or even anxiety or depression.

Yet there is a way out of this cycle:  The good news is that our brains demonstrate the ability to make new connections and modify existing connections which can change the way that we think, and even change the way we react subconsciously. It just takes some training and ‘practice’.  This is called ‘neuroplasticity’, and it is an ability that we all have at any age.

For people prone to epoxides of depression, they are often consumed with negative thoughts of self-blame and low self-worth. Yet there are many studies that show that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is effective in enabling subjects to be more objective if such thoughts should arise – or more able to choose to focus on the current movement rather than on ruminations of the past or worries about a future that may never come to be.

I read this recent article on the website describing research by Kate William and her team at the University of Manchester. Here

The research involved working with subjects prone to depression to help them to avoid a relapse. The subjects were trained in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which trains individuals to respond to negative self-thoughts with acceptance and compassion as studies suggest that the approach is effective. The team used tests to gauge any reduction in “self-blame” which is thought to be a key component in avoiding a relapse into depression. The researchers used fMRI brain scanning to examine activation in brain regions associated with self-blame before and after the MBCT training.

Sure enough, the impact of the MBCT training was to reduce the self-blame and also to increase self-compassion  in subjects –  so that subjects are no longer so hard on themselves when things don’t work out as hoped.

And Bingo; upon analysis of the brain activity during self-blame versus other-blame activities; they found a drop in activation of the bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the medial superior frontal region. The dACC has been previously linked to emotions related to self-blame such as guilt and embarrassment.  So here is a change to the wiring of the brain that demonstrated the reduced self-blame that the subjects experienced.

Interestingly, the researchers also demonstrated that the reduction in self-blame following MBCT was linked to greater “self-kindness” as measured by the Self-Compassion Scale. Their analyses showed that increases in self-kindness correlated with reduced activation in the posterior cingulate cortex.

The researchers commented: “These findings suggest that MBCT is associated with a reduction in activations in cortical midline regions to self-blame which may be mediated by increasing self-kindness”

This research is very encouraging – it demonstrates that not only does MBCT cause subjects experience less self-blame and more self-compassion; but it shows that the wiring in their brains has been changed by the training so that they will be less likely to experience a relapse.