By Scott Kaufman, Carolyn Gregoire | AlterNet
The following is an excerpt from the new book Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire (Perigee, 2015):
Being mindful alters the very structure and function of the brain, supporting executive functions like attention and self-regulation, both of which are valuable assets to creativity–especially when it comes to motivating ourselves to sit down and focus on a challenging creative task for extended periods of time.
Related Article: Meditation for Becoming Perfectly Peaceful with Sonia Choquette
A significant body of research has found mindfulness training to improve key executive attention skills.[i] One of its most valuable benefits of mindfulness training is that it boosts cognitive control, the ability to focus on an important decision while avoiding distractions and impulses. A 2014 study published in Clinical Neurophysiology found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was effective in increasing cognitive control among adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), leading to reductions in impulsivity and inattention.[ii] Of course, we don’t want to throw out the baby without the bathwater: People with ADHD also tend to show an overactive imagination network.[iii] The key is helping them learn the crucial skills of flexible attention so that they can pay attention to the outside world when they want or need to, while also helping them put their overactive imagination to good use.[iv]
Mindfulness training can lead to measurable improvements in the ability to focus and to regulate emotions and behavior even in those who do not suffer from attentional disorders. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science showed that a brief mindfulness exercise before an exam helped students identify distracting thoughts, which lead to improvements in reading comprehension and working memory.[v] Overall, the exercise led to a sixteen-point average boost on the GRE exam, largely by reducing disruptive mind wandering.
Clearly, you don’t have to be an experienced meditator to benefit from mindfulness. As little as a single, short meditation session can have a positive impact on mental functioning.
More extensive research conducted on novice meditators who completed an eight-week MBSR course and on experienced meditators who underwent a month-long meditation retreat showed significant improvements in three aspects of attention: alerting (the maintenance of an alert state of mind), orienting (directing and limiting one’s attention to a targeted set of stimuli) and conflict monitoring (the ability to prioritize competing responses).[vi]
So what’s going on neurologically when we’re sitting silently and focusing on the breath or a mantra? Scientists have begun to uncover the changes in neurobiology and brain structure underlying the cognitive improvements linked with meditation. A 2011 Harvard study identified some of the main neural correlates of the positive changes brought about by mindfulness training programs. The study found that just eight weeks of MBSR led to increased grey matter density in areas of the brain associated with executive function—specifically, attention, and emotion regulation.
First, the researchers saw that grey matter density increased in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain region located in the frontal lobe that’s associated with self-regulation, thinking, emotion, rational deliberation, and problem-solving. (Interestingly, high levels of media multitasking have been linked with reduced density in the ACC.[vii]) The research team also saw increases in grey matter in the hippocampus, a small region within the limbic system that governs memory, learning, and emotion (and plays a crucial role in the imagination network). Increased activity in the ACC and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—which is involved in processing risk and fear as well as inhibiting emotional responses—have been implicated in the reduction of anxiety, a well-known creativity blocker.[viii] Greater activation in both of these brain areas has been shown to lead to substantial feelings of anxiety relief after a twenty-minute meditation.