For such a calming practice, meditation can be pretty divisive — depending on who you ask, meditation is either the only source of relaxation people use to get through the day, or a self-indulgent, navel-gazing waste of time. Science, it seems, has come down firmly in the pro-meditation camp; a recent study shows that meditation can make you a more creative thinker.
The study, published in Mindfulness, asked 40 participants to perform tasks that required either divergent or convergent thinking after 25 minutes of one of two types of meditation: "open monitoring," in which you freely allow yourself to feel, or "focused attention," in which you're instructed to focus on one thought or feeling. Divergent thinking involves coming up with as many solutions as possible to a problem, while we use convergent thinking to find one particular solution. The researchers found that participants who engaged in open monitoring meditation performed better on divergent thinking tasks, such as having to come up with as many uses as possible for a pen. I'm assuming they were looking for stuff other than the obvious ones like writing, or stabbing someone in the eye like the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The study included people who were completely new to meditation in addition to experienced practitioners, and it showed improvement in divergent thinking for both types. Basically, meditation helps you to think more freely, which is pretty much the definition of creativity. This supports a growing body of research showing the benefits of meditation, such as a study published in PLOS One which found that meditation reduces cognitive rigidity, and they aren't limited to creativity. Meditation is great for you in these other ways too:
Scientists at Northeastern University found that meditation isn't just good for you; it's good for those around you, too. Participants in the study were placed in a room with an actor, and when another actor entered the room clearly in great pain and struggling with crutches, 50 percent of meditating participants offered help even after the first actor ignored the person in pain. In comparison, non-practicing participants only helped 18 percent of the time.
The exact mechanisms behind this get into a whole bunch of neuroscience that I'm not qualified to explain, but mindfulness meditation has been shown to aid in pain relief. Pain is subjective and related to numerous factors from the placebo effect to your mood at that moment, but recent brain imaging research suggests that meditation uses the same pathways, and has similar effectiveness, as other ways of managing pain.
Meditation is great for focusing in general, so researchers put it to the test in an academic setting. In the study, randomly selected students were asked to meditate before a lecture, and they overwhelmingly did better on the quiz following the lecture than the students who did not practice. If only I'd known this in college; maybe scheduling yoga right before organic chemistry would have saved me a few all-nighters. Learn from my mistakes, kids.
I'm typically pretty skeptical of alternative medicine, but the science is surprisingly solid in this case. Hopefully this has swayed a few of my fellow Ron Swanson-style meditation skeptics out there. And if this article saves your organic chemistry grade, be sure to let us know!
Images: Fotolia; Giphy