I recently wrote an article about if mindfulness could aid in insight problem solving. The problem with the study, I referenced to in my article, was that it did not strictly investigate the mechanism behind mindfulness’ effect, or the impact of different techniques. However, last week a new study by a group of Dutch scientist got published that looked at if focused awareness (FA) and open monitoring (OM) had different effects on convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking means simply that your thinking “converges” toward the right answer. Generally meaning that you give a correct answer, i.e. the type of accurate and logical thinking required on many intelligence tests, were not a whole lot of creativity is required. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is about “diverging” your thinking and generating many new ideas and explore different solutions, sort if like a brainstorming session.
The Dutch researchers reasoned that since open awareness relies less on top-down control than focused awareness, it should be beneficial in tasks requiring divergent thinking. To test this theory they recruited nineteen meditation practitioners with an average meditation experience of 2.2 years (in both FA and OM). In order to test convergent thinking the study subjects were presented with three unrelated words and asked to find a common associate (Remote Association Task [RAT]). Divergent thinking were measured by the Alternate Uses Task (AUT), which consists of finding as many different uses of six common household items as you can. The subjects’ answers were then rated by their originality, fluency, flexibility and elaboration by independent blinded assessors. In total, the subjects participated in tree 45 minutes sessions separated by 10 days. Each session consisted of either 35 minutes of FA, OM or a guided visualization exercise used as a baseline measure.
As the researchers expected, after the OM session the scores for divergent thinking were significantly higher than after the FA and baseline sessions. They write that “OM meditation was assumed to induce a relatively ‘distributed’ cognitive-control state that is characterized by weak top-down biasing of information processing and weak local competition among alternative thoughts, while FA meditation was assumed to induce a relatively focused cognitive-control state characterized by strong top-down control and strong local competition. If so, OM meditation practice would be expected to facilitate divergent thinking, as assessed by the AUT, but not convergent thinking. And this is exactly what the data show”.
Quality of the evidence
This study utilized a within-subject design, where the same individuals were tested under the different conditions, and in principle each individual served as its own control. The researchers controlled for the major confounder in this type of design; sequence effects, both by counterbalancing and by statistical analyses, and none were found. They also utilized blinded assessors, which is a good thing. However, the participants were self-selected so it’s hard to say how that biased the experiment. Performing the experiment with mediation-naive subjects would’ve been a better choice. Now it’s impossible to rule out that subjects performed better after OM simply due to having practiced it more, or that OM primed them for divergent thinking by some other confounding variable, and that the effect is not a testament to the efficacy of meditation. Though, it is interesting that a difference were found between OM and FA.
Colzato LS, Ozturk A, & Hommel B (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in psychology, 3 PMID: 22529832