This text describes how open monitoring meditation can help improve divergent thinking by suppressing memory narratives.
Open monitoring meditation involves sitting with eyes closed and allowing whatever thoughts, emotions, or ideas arise to be observed without judgment.
This practice can help improve divergent thinking within a few days or weeks.
“Now, I realize that for some of you listening to this episode, we are probably at the point along the pathway of concept and definition and mechanism that leaves you in a place of real wanting a tool. And so I promise that I’m going to get into more tools, but to satisfy you and to make sure that you do indeed understand that there are tools that can emerge from the information that you already now have in mind, I do want to share with you one particular tool from the literature that has been demonstrated over and over again to support and build and enhance divergent thinking. And I also want to share with you a tool that has been shown from the scientific literature to enhance convergent thinking, because both convergent and divergent thinking are critical for the creative process.
Now, I should emphasize that some people out there, either by training or by genetics or by both, will be naturally better at divergent or convergent thinking. And in fact, we now know in a kind of almost poetic kind of way that naturally occurring variations in genes, which underlie naturally occurring variations in the percentage of dopamine in one set of brain circuits versus another, do seem to relate to whether or not people are naturally good at divergent thinking or convergent thinking.
Now, that’s a very nature-based explanation for why some people are better at divergent thinking and other people are better at convergent thinking. Nature and nurture is something that can never really be teased apart exactly, because of course, if someone has a natural proclivity for something based on their genes, you can’t often separate that from their parents, because we inherit our genes from our parents. Although, even in cases where people are raised away from their parents through adoption, et cetera, it’s very hard to separate nature and nurture, because somebody with a natural proclivity for things might engage in those things more, et cetera, et cetera.
The point is that for those of you that are very, very good at divergent thinking or very, very good at convergent thinking, some of that might’ve been inherited, but more than likely, some of that depended on the kinds of activities that you engaged in in your early years, in particular, in the years between age five and 25. And for those of you that are aged between five and 25, all I can say is please learn to engage both divergent and convergent thinking as much as possible, because you will enhance your ability for both. For those of you 25 and older, you can still enhance your ability to engage divergent and convergent thinking. And the fortunate news, the equalizer, I should say, is that regardless of whether or not you are naturally better at divergent or convergent thinking or you acquired it through activities, you need both in order to be creative.
So what we know is that in order to engage divergent thinking, we need access to our memory banks. We need to come up with possibilities, and those possibilities can only come from what’s contained within our memory systems of our brain, areas like the hippocampus, et cetera. But the names, again, don’t matter. We just know that if we are going to come up with novel combinations of things or novel uses of things or totally new ideas about how objects or notes of music or foods or tastes or whatever can be combined, we have to do that with preexisting knowledge. And yet what we need to do in order to engage divergent thinking is suppress what is called autobiographical narratives, and in particular, autobiographical narratives. We need to discard judgments about how certain combinations of things impacted us in the past. This is, I think, is what people mean when they encourage the exploration of creativity by so-called boundary exploration.
You hear about this a lot in kind of the self-help and psychology literature, and I’m not at all disparaging of that literature, although rarely does it define exactly how and why to go about being more creative or in this case, to be more divergent in our thinking. So they’ll say, you have to take risks or you have to suppress judgment, but how do you actually do that? Well, there’s a wonderful paper that talks about one way to do it. One way to do it is what’s called open monitoring meditation or even just open monitoring thinking. And just to make what could otherwise be a somewhat complex section here very simple, what I’ll also tell you is that if you want to enhance convergent thinking, you can do that a number of ways, but you can do that in particular by doing a different type of meditation or thought process, which is called focused attention meditation. So let’s talk about open monitoring meditation and why it’s so useful for enhancing divergent thinking, this critical element of the creative process.
First of all, open monitoring meditation and focused attention meditation can be performed the exact same way physically. You can sit there, eyes closed. I don’t care if you’re in a Lotus position, it doesn’t really matter. You’re lying down, you’re standing up. You could, in theory, do open monitoring meditation with eyes open, and that would be an interesting variant on it. But for sake of the discussion right now, let’s just focus on the study that talks about these specific tools and the way that they were used in the study. The title of the paper that I’m essentially summarizing is called Open Monitoring Meditation Reduces the Involvement of Brain Regions Related to Memory Function.
Now, right off the bat, that should cue you to something interesting. Something about divergent thinking and open monitoring is related to suppressing memory. But as you recall, just a few moments ago, I said that in order to engage in divergent thinking, you need to kind of kill off the narratives of what has to be related to what and come up with new narratives. You still need to understand possibilities, but you need to forget prior understanding of what those possibilities have to be and start thinking about what those possibilities could be. And so that, it turns out, involves suppression of certain brain areas. Open monitoring meditation is typically done for about 10 to 30 minutes, although it could be longer. And unlike other forms of meditation where you sit and concentrate on your breathing and try and redirect your thinking back to your breathing or to your posture or to a chant or a mantra, open monitoring meditation is simply a matter of having you sit there or lie down, close your eyes, and to allow whatever surfaces in your mind to surface. And what you practice is the practice of non-judgment.
Now, non-judgment itself is a little bit of an abstract theme because, of course, the moment you say, don’t judge, you and others start to judge. It’s just the way that the brain works. You say, don’t think about an elephant. You think about an elephant. That’s perfectly natural. You go to an edge of a bridge or a cliff and you think about jumping off, even though you don’t, please don’t, jump off. And that’s because it’s part of the circuitry that’s keeping you from jumping off is the thought about what would happen if you did, okay?
So open monitoring meditation involves dedicating a certain amount of time where you close your eyes and whatever thoughts arise, whatever emotions arise, whatever ideas arise, to watch those and take an inventory of them, to just merely watch them show up and pass, or maybe you become fixated on them for some period of time, or maybe even just one for a long period of time. All of that is fine. In other words, whatever surfaces, surfaces. That’s open monitoring meditation. And that we know from brain imaging studies and we know from measurements of dopamine in particular brain circuits. And we know from people who train with open monitoring meditation on a regular basis improves divergent thinking capability.
So in terms of tools, practicing open monitoring meditation or what I would just call open monitoring thinking is going to be immensely useful. And this is actually an opportunity to cue up something that I mentioned in our episode on meditation, which goes deep into the different kinds of meditation involving focus inward and outward, et cetera. You’re welcome to check out that episode. It’s at hubermanlab.com. But the point is that rather than think about the word meditation, which carries a bunch of ideas about what it is and what it isn’t and how to do it, meditation is really just a perceptual exercise. For instance, you could do a meditation where you look at a single point on a wall for five minutes and redirect your focus to that single point on a wall over and over again every time your mind drifts as it no doubt would, or to a tone in the room, you could attend to that and redirect to that. Rather than thinking about it as a meditation, it’s really just a perceptual exercise. That’s all that meditation is.
So open monitoring meditation is really just a form of perception where you’re paying attention, you’re perceiving your thoughts without laying judgment to those thoughts or trying not to lay judgment to those thoughts. And what people find is that they very quickly within a few days, get better at doing open monitoring meditation. And fortunately within just a few days, and certainly within about a week or more of practice, and it doesn’t even have to be daily practice. So although of course daily practice will accelerate the process further, people become significantly better at divergent thinking. And that’s because of the dopamine circuits and in particular along the nigrostriatal pathway becoming more active. And the wonderful thing is that when you repeat a practice and a particular neural circuit is engaged over and over again deliberately, that neural circuit becomes easier to engage, so-called neuroplasticity.
So I would encourage any of you that want to explore the creative process for whatever reason or get better at the creative process, dedicate some amount of time, maybe even just five minutes every other day to doing this open monitoring meditation. I’ve tried this meditation, it’s actually quite fun to do because at least to me, it feels a lot easier than the meditation associated with convergent thinking.”
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