The COVID-19 crisis has leaders reeling to deal with its threats and opportunities, everyone is grappling with the stress. Mindfulness in the name of self-care has become mainstream, but the advantages for innovation are less well-known. The two, of course, are interconnected: fatigue and even burnout can certainly put a damper on creativity. The current crisis has increased the demand for restful, creative states of mind that can facilitate innovation. These can be attained when we “pause” our business lives and allow some quiet, stillness, and even boredom into our lives.

As automation and artificial intelligence take over more rote and analytical work, our abilities to create and to understand become more salient. As we co-create a new normal, tuning into our sub-conscious could help us re-imagine the future. For instance, when we daydream, meditate, our mind works in modes that differ from the ordinary, waking state in terms of attention, concentration, imagination, memory and more, known as altered states of consciousness. Such altered states tend to switch on divergent thinking, opening our mind to new ideas.

We know collaboration is key for innovation. However, solitude can be just as important. Just as we must balance convergent and divergent thinking, we can also do with some uninterrupted, deep thinking periods of flow state. COVID-19 distancing is giving some a taste of what thoughtful solitude can be: focusing in on one task or simply allowing the mind to wander with still and quiet time.

Silence can be an excellent incubator for innovation. A study by Duke’s Imke Kirste found that two hours of silence per day facilitated learning new ideas by prompting cell development in the hippocampus, the key brain region associated with learning and memory. If idle silence and stillness aren’t your jam, then lucid dreams and related wakeful or lucid sleep states could interest you.

Getting high, without drugs

Manori Sumanasinghe, a lifelong meditation and lucid sleep practitioner and architecture graduate, has made a bet in this space with the Neuma Mind Spa & Showroom, in L.A.’s Chinatown. The Sri Lankan-American’s startup features workshops and technologies like the Cymatix recliner, which uses sound and vibration oscillatory patterns that mimic ancient practices. The Cymatix aims to facilitate deep relaxation with partial wakefulness within 25 minutes. The Neuma Mind Spa also features technologies like the Muse brain-sensing headband, one of several “transformative technologies” emerging to facilitate mindfulness, well-being and creativity. Manori aims to design well-being tech spaces like this one in companies, co-working spaces, airports, spas, hospitals, malls, and more.

Many innovators make considerable effort to tap into altered states. Micro-dosing substances like LSD is a thinly veiled secret in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs’ formative experiences with mind altering are the stuff of legend. However, such substances are neither a desirable nor viable option for many, such as utilities and construction personnel. Instead, there is a rising trend of creatives turning to mindful techniques and even technology to facilitate altered states.

Lucid dreams happen when we realize that we are dreaming while still dreaming and allow us to simulate real-life situations and to let our mind run wild in a sort of internally-generated virtual reality. In a sense, our own mind is a type of Internal Reality (IR) tech that can complement other types of Extended Reality (XR) like Augmented Reality (AR). Research suggests that lucid dreamers tend to score better in creative problem-solving tasks, demonstrating greater predisposition for insight.  Research suggests that people who practice mindfulness have more cognitive flexibility, are able to see beyond what they’ve already done, and are better at solving problems requiring insight.

Hence, it is clear how altered and mindful states can be helpful for the incubation and insight stages of the creative process: they help develop non-conceptual awareness, going beyond the autopilot, observing things as if seeing them for the first time. Research indicates that people are open to original ideas after a brief meditation practice. The emotional resilience benefits of mindfulness can help us advocate for change, as well. Mindfulness can facilitate more balanced decisions, moderating fight-or-flight reactions, making us less reactive to potential change. Teams can amplify the effect.

Numerous inventions, discoveries and works of art have sprung out altered states. For example, the periodic table of elements, Google, Tesla’s A/C motor, Ramanujan’s theta math functions, some of Salvador Dali’s paintings, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon have been credited in part to dreams. We should not be surprised to find more and more companies training their employees to have lucid dreams, hypnagogic, and out-of-body experiences, an altered state that has been correlated with lower pain levels. Both natural techniques and designed technologies promote the type of “body-mostly-asleep, mind-somewhat-awake” state that tends to accompany these curious states of mind.

Embrace the Boredom

Many people are finding themselves bored during the COVID-19 isolation. While we may feel tempted to drown that feeling with endless streaming of online entertainment, social media or gaming. Contemporary life has glorified being busy. What if we are missing out on something important, by drowning our boredom reflexively? First of all, boredom may be a sign that you are ready for new inspiration or project. Think back to the moments when some of your best ideas have surfaced. Chances are these were quiet, contemplative moments: while staring out the window in a train, while in the shower, or during a long walk.

Letting your mind wander is crucial for creativity. From time to time, embrace the tedium or Bertrand Russell’s fructifying boredom. When we need generative, divergent thinking, we tend to do better after boring activities. If we need to closely examine a problem and produce a concise, effective solution (convergent thinking), we tend to do better after mind-numbing activities. Our brain has the ability to operate in various modes. We can allow altered modes to manifest, by going beyond the normal waking state and unconscious sleep. Some of the world’s top innovators and successful leaders schedule time to just contemplate, tapping into memory, observations, knowledge, experiences, imagination and allowing for novel connections to surface as those light bulb moments. Will you?

In silence’s calm surrounds, we discover the power of imagination and throw open the gates to creativity.

– Picasso