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Can too much mindfulness hamper creativity?

Posted January 29, 2014 • Mindfulness • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

In a recent New York Times Magazine article called  “Breathing in vs. Spacing out: Is mindfulness always best?”  author Dan Hurley compares the benefits of being mindful versus letting your mind wander, and concludes that too much mindfulness could hamper creativity.

Yes, you read that correctly:  too much mindfulness could hamper creativity.  What I want to know is: since when are we as a society in danger of being too mindful?

Hurley cites research on mind wandering (for example, doing nothing while staring out the window) which suggests that mind wandering supports creative thinking.

He compares this to other research suggesting that mindfulness (for example, sitting quietly observing your breath going in and out) can increase performance, including greater memory capacity and the ability to focus over time.

He then concludes that we should all think twice before we spend too much time being mindful, and therefore lose out on our ability to be creative.

Before I tell you my specific problem with Hurley’s conclusion, I’d like to acknowledge something positive about this article overall:

It is heartening to see this article in the Sunday New York Times.  I applaud Hurley for writing it and the New York Times for publishing it.  I am glad to see a debate entering mainstream US media about the merits of mindfulness and when and how much to use it.

This suggests to me that we as a society are moving in the right direction–away from trying to impress one another with how many things we can do at once and towards valuing awareness, and taking thoughtful action based on that awareness.

However, my trouble with Hurley’s article is that it pits two ways of being aware against each other, rather than heralding the discoveries of each of them.  If any comparisons should be made, I’d like to see articles comparing research on the deleterious effects of multi-tasking versus the positive effects of both mind wandering and mindfulness.

Let’s see which of those leads to better performance!

When I’m working with clients, I don’t differentiate much between focusing the mind on a word or an object versus letting the mind wander.  Both of those, as Hurley duly notes, create positive effects in real life, and when I’m working with real people, that’s what matters.

For instance, if I have a client who tells me she spent 10 minutes each day in the past week sitting quietly in meditation, or letting her mind wander while sitting on the train, I consider either one of those a big win.  It’s a win over the beeping of her iPhone, it’s a win over the cacaphony of her life.  It helps her approach her work and life in a more settled, thoughtful way.  It is full of possibility.

My point is: spend some time each day doing nothing much (whether that’s sitting or eating or walking meditation, or looking out the window) and it’ll likely help you–perform better, be more creative, increase your memory.

As mindfulness continues to become more mainstream in the scientific and business communities, research will likely keep growing this list of benefits.

But keep spending time doing many things at once, and reacting without thinking, and you’ll see the negative effects.

That’s the real life choice.  Choose wisely.