Meditate Your Way To A More Creative Mind

Want to ignite your creative brain? Slow down.

THIRTY YEARS AGO, the Walt Disney Co. was at a creative crossroads. With the opening of Epcot, Disney's original theme park vision was complete. Where could the company go next? Walt Disney's Imagineers, the company's goofily named creative design and development arm, took an unusual step. They called in a therapist and meditation teacher named Ron Alexander. "Over two years, I did a series of seminars on creativity, reengineering, and revisioning, so that individuals in the division could begin to access new creative directions," he says. The Imagineers went on to open Tokyo Disney, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland, and even today still earn patents in areas like 3-D virtual-reality displays and animatronics.

In the decades since, Alexander has built up his therapy and coaching practice helping creative workers—Hollywood producers, rock musicians, advertising executives, screenwriters—enhance their creativity. He asks his clients to meditate for at least 12 minutes every day. "Mindfulness helps you to build what I call 'mind strength,' " Alexander says. "Your awareness and consciousness become really toned. This is an excellent strategy for becoming successful in your profession, as well as the bigger game of transforming yourself and the people who work with and for you."

Alexander's metaphor is grounded in science. In a move partly spurred by recent improvements in the resolution of computer-generated brain images as well as advances in stem-cell research, neuroscientists have been learning that our brains are more malleable than was once presumed. "A decade ago, we thought you got what you were given at birth and that was pretty much it," says Joshua Aronson, a psychologist at New York University who studies intellectual performance. "But now we know the number of brain cells can increase throughout your life through neurogenesis. There's great evidence that shows if you really work on a skill, the part of the brain associated with that skill grows. The mind is like a muscle. If you don't keep exercising it, it will atrophy."

When adults practice juggling, for example, gray-matter volume in motor areas increases after just two weeks. A classic series of experiments showed that London taxi drivers, who go through detailed training to memorize their city's layout, emerge with enlarged hippocampal regions, which are associated with memory.

But can intelligence and creativity really be as "neuroplastic" as memory and motor skills? Intelligence, much less creativity, has not been conclusively linked with any one area in the brain. The closest analogues are the so-called executive functions, brain systems involved in planning, integrating of sensory information, and abstract thinking, that are thought to be concentrated in the prefrontal cortex. There is, says Aronson, a way to improve executive functioning, and it's the very same practice prescribed by Alexander: mindfulness meditation. In fact, Aronson is currently planning a meditation study with undergrads at NYU. "Some studies show that people who do mindfulness meditation gain as much as 10 IQ points," he says. "What that seems to indicate is that it works on the ability to screen out irrelevant information, to clear out the mind of distractions, and to focus intently on relevant stimuli, which frees up resources to solve problems."

Subjectively, after a few weeks of practice, I can say that meditation does seem to quickly bring on a sense of quiet and clarity. Still, being creative is not as simple as being relaxed. It also involves the ability to make unexpected connections, to move fluidly among concepts, to consolidate past memories, ideas, or impressions and arrive at new insights. Alexander calls this second step "accessing your creative unconscious," and he believes meditation can set the stage.

Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain and an author and speaker on the intersection of psychology and business, agrees. He's been meditating for about 12 years, he says, but "it's only been in the last few years that I've really gotten into it." He works with meditation, yoga, and a spiritual and psychological program called Diamond Heart. All of these practices have the goal of calming down what he and many Buddhists call "monkey mind," in order to react to circumstances less automatically, to reach deeper. He says they help him with hiring negotiations, family relationships, and even his decision to give up a majority stake in his company and pursue writing full time.

We're a long way from locating creativity in the brain or working it like a muscle. However, for those with a little patience, there's promise in slowing down long enough to let the creative spark emerge. "Underneath the surface is where emotions are," says Conley. "Intuition, creativity, and innovation are quite often hidden."

Ron Alexander's Method for Mindfulness Meditation

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  • sadiq sikandar

    Brain Gym and Meditation Centers coupled with strong branding with advertising can be a profitable model. Not to mention that the DNA information and sampling industry is already in the nascent stage and hold a promising future.
    In a way we are looking forward for a way to improve psychosomatic and a physiological wellbeing of an individual, part of which is already done by our education system, society,family, sports etc. (to the extent we keep our interest in it)
    However, this field would need some deep and profound research (and funding) in order to recreate or transform a person into an “Advanced Human”. Technological can scientific progress can also perk this up.
    We can also look forward to it as education stream combo like Biotechnology – something called “Psyphilbiotech” (Psychology + Philosophy + Biology + Technology + Physiology) -J
    The extent to which it can improve the creativity and intelligence would be interesting to see forward and I guess the ever and ongoing evolution is making us smarter anyways.

  • Shawn Tuttle

    I love seeing the topic of mindfulness in Fast Co! In addition to facilitating creativity, I believe that for those who desire their work and life to be infused with purpose, a meditation or mindfulness practice is one of the best ways to stay clear and tuned in to our calling when the going gets rough. 

  • koann Skrzyniarz

    So glad to see you calling out the importance of mindfulness in business, as in life, Anya. I fully agree, particularly in this age of enormous distraction, that cultivating the practice of presence will be of increasing import if we are to navigate our way through the morass of challenging issues we face to a sustainable future.  Happy that Chip (and Carol Sanford, Jeffrey Hollender and others!) will be actively about this at Sustainable Brands '11 in Monterey in just 2 weeks -- and happier still that so many influencers from companies ranging from Nike, Unilever, Ford, Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Green Mt., Levis and Dow to Panera, Daimler's Car2Go, Zimride, and hundreds of other innovators who will be there are all committed to crafting a vision for a sustainable economy -- one where sustainable brands (which we define as better brands that serve and delight all stakeholders in both current and future generations) will be the business leaders of the day because of their role in helping us create and support societal norms that support rather than destroy humanity and this awesome planet which we call home.

    We will miss you there this year, our 5th annual convening if you can believe it!  But we can all take great comfort in being present to how far we have come, and how much the conversation has matured since you and 225 others gathered to start this conversation in New Orleans just a few years ago. Hope you have checked out the line up as it has taken shape, and hope you'll be back next year to help continue to carry the conversation forward. Let me know if you want a virtual pass.  Would love to have you following along and chiming in :)

  • Carol Sanford

    Excellent piece Anya.  The practice of consciousness in the business context is core to great all companies—even if they do not know what is what they are doing. There is living meditation which does not call for everyone in the company to be in a sitting practice. It is a skill learned that includes learning to watch the mind that at is work, using frameworks that promote wholeness, that have demonstrated building such a capability. I tell stories in my new book at about Fortune 500 and small new economy businesses who use such practices who have astonishing success in challenging situations as well as ones that are every day events. These stories have never been told, even though the media may have covered the success side. They do not cover what it took to create them—mental discipline based on inner reflection.
    Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success. Named to CNBC Bullish on Books Shortlist to read for 2011.