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."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.