It seems counterintuitive that something like mindfulness could be harmful. If we pay attention when crossing the street or driving (instead of texting), we’re less likely to get hit by a bus. If we listen to our spouse when he or she is talking (instead of daydreaming), we are more likely to have a harmonious marriage.
Yet several research groups have now done studies suggesting that mindfulness might be harmful for implicit learning (e.g., riding a bike) and even creativity. For example, a study by Jonathan Schooler’s lab at UC Santa Barbara published a paper in 2012 entitled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” In this study, they were interested in how much mind wandering is associated with creativity, so first had college students do a creativity task, which importantly, has been shown to require some incubation (i.e., “let me sit on this and get back to you”). Then students were randomized to either perform an undemanding (to maximize mind wandering) or a demanding task (to minimize mind wandering), after which they repeated the creativity task. Schooler’s lab measured how much the students reported mind wandering during the undemanding vs. demanding task, and found that individuals mind wandered more during the undemanding task (which was expected).
Interestingly, they also found that the undemanding task was associated with increased creativity and concluded that this was due to the mind wandering. For those of us that like to sit and ponder, this makes sense, but how does it fit with mindfulness?
Dr. Schooler was recently quoted by the New York Times:
When you’re staring out the window, you may well be coming up with your next great idea. But you’re not paying attention to the teacher. So the challenge is finding the balance between mindfulness and mind wandering. If you’re driving in a difficult situation, if you’re operating machinery, if you’re having a conversation, it’s useful to hold that focus. But that could be taken to an extreme, where one always holds their attention in the present and never lets it wander.
But is this all there is to the story? Here is a hint that may fill in at least some of the missing pieces: how hard is it to always hold attention in the present and never let it wander?
As Dr. Schooler points out in the first line of his study, “Anecdotes of individuals solving problems after relinquishing the effort to solve them date back millennia.” Hmm, relinquishing the effort. His study compared a demanding vs. undemanding task. Could this have more to do with their results than the mind wandering itself?
When our mental processing RAM is working at 100-percent capacity with a demanding task, there is literally no room for other cognitive processes to take place. But when we relinquish the effort, we free up our brain’s processing power to work on other things in the background (including solving problems or being creative), while conscious processes like mind wandering are happening in the foreground. And this this may not be at odds with mindfulness at all.
Superficially, mindfulness has been equated with paying attention. But in fact, the early Buddhists described a method for ending suffering. The word vipassana is often translated as, “seeing clearly.” We pay attention not just for the sake of paying attention, but to see clearly the results of our actions. Do they increase or decrease our suffering? And this has very little to do with deliberate effort. How much deliberate effort does it take to pay attention when we pick up something that burns our hand? How much deliberate effort does it take to refrain from picking up a piece of gum off the sidewalk and putting it in our mouth? (See this blog for more.)
In fact, this is how experienced practitioners describe mindfulness — it is effortless. And at the far end of the spectrum, when we are completely out of our own way, we are in “flow.” As support for this, in a recent study at Yale University where we were linking subjective experience to brain activity in meditators, participants consistently reported a category of experience described as “effortless awareness” that directly correlated with decreasedactivity in a brain region associated with effort, that has previously been shown to become deactivated during meditation. [2-4] This is pretty different than never letting our minds wander (which is obviously pretty effortful — just try it for yourself).
Taken together, these studies suggest several things: that the absence of mind wandering likely does not equal the presence of mindfulness, and that effortlessness may be a key aspect of cultivating the fertile soil for creativity to grow.
We can test both of these in our own, everyday experience — is it different when we force ourselves to pay attention vs. finding the conditions that support awareness? — and in the laboratory. (Does effortless awareness track with creativity more than mind wandering?)  Are there different categories of mind wandering — those with and without awareness — that correlate more with creativity?
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1. Baird, B., et al., Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychol Sci, 2012. 23(10): p. 1117-22.
2. Brewer, J.A., et al., Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011. 108(50): p. 20254-9.
3. Garrison, K., et al., Effortless awareness: using real time neurofeedback to investigate correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditatorsí self-report. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013. 7.
4. Brewer, J.A., K.A. Garrison, and S. Whitfield-Gabrieli, What about the “Self” is Processed in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013. 7.
5. Brewer, J.A., J.H. Davis, and J. Goldstein, Why Is It So Hard to Pay Attention, or Is It? Mindfulness, the Factors of Awakening and Reward-Based Learning. Mindfulness, 2013. 4(1): p. 75-80.