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”.

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