From what I have read here and there, I've managed to stitch together some superficial understanding of focus and creativity. My understanding is that focus and creativity seem like opposites.

I've seen references (which all seem to originate from a coursera course on learning) to two distinct "modes of thought". One called 'Focused' and one called 'Diffuse'. In focused mode, we focus on doing something we already know how to do. In Diffuse mode, we don't focus on a specific task we are instead searching for a way to do something, until we come up with an idea - it is at that point we focus on completing a task.

Whether this view of thought is scientifically grounded or not, there does seem to be some truth to it: the default mode network, whose activity is reduced during certain types of meditation (at least, according to wikipedia), from what i can understand is linked to creativity . The explanation of this default mode seems similar to the "diffuse" mode of thought.

It seems (at least, to me), that focus and creativity are opposites - which makes sense in some ways. But is it really so?

  1. Are creativity and focus competitive as far as the brain structures that support these are concerned? That is, if I improve my ability to focus, will it interfere with my ability to be creative? This seems somewhat ridiculous to me, but I suspect it's only because I want to believe it isn't so. For the moment, my understanding is that creativity and focus are separate, and require "switching" between them, which leads to the next question:

  2. Are creativity and focus competitive as far as brain activity goes? that is, if I try to focus on something right now, will it interfere with my ability to be creative? If I focus on solving a problem I know how to solve, I probably won't be looking for a creative solution (also, there is the Einstellung effect). But does the same mechanism responsible for maintaining or focus interfere with our ability to be creative at the moment?

  • $\begingroup$ How are you defining focus? $\endgroup$
    – queenslug
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @queenslug I won't even try, since I'm not familiar enough with the topic to be sure I know how to define it well. Any definition of focus which has an accepted test used to measure it will do :) And thanks for the edits! $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ creativity is subjective term and there are many sort of creativity. A chess-champion would tell her/his power is creativity... i.e. ability to 'create' uncountable numbers of barriers unimaginable to her/his opponent. But it takes immense focus. In contrast an artist (Van Gogh for say) would probably distort the reality and probably they'll give the credit of their creativity to not-focusing. In another hand a very-creative cartoonist or jokes-artist (comedian) would not belong to any of above 2 categories. $\endgroup$
    – user13859
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ Related: Brain Right hemisphere is random and left hemisphere is linear? really? $\endgroup$
    – user13859
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 14:54

1 Answer 1


I can't really answer your questions as they relate to your ability to be creative. Also I'm unsure as to how 'focus' is defined, however, I know of research linking both attention and working memory to creativity which you may be able to draw conclusions from.

There is some mixed research to back the idea creativity and attention are linked; it has been hypothesised that individuals who suffer from ADHD (and thus a widened attentional focus) may have higher creative abilities than non ADHD individuals. One study on teens found that although those with ADHD out performed those without on tasks that involve overcoming the influence of examples, they showed a reduced capacity to generate a functional invention during an imagery task (Abraham et al 2006). White and Shah (2006) found similar results in adults and suggest than the disparity in creative ability may be linked to inhibition.

There has also been some research suggesting that creativity and capacity of working memory have opposing characteristics possibly in terms of diffuse attention. Working memory (WM) is an essential component for human higher order cognitive activities (large capacity for WM could come under 'focus'). Attention and WM share neural substrates and they are cognitively deeply associated (Awh and Jonides, 2001). Takeuchi et al used fMRI to investigate the link between WM and creativity and found that individual creativity, as measured by the divergent thinking test, is related to the inefficient reallocation of attention, congruent with the idea that diffuse attention is associated with individual creativity.


Abraham, A., Windmann, S., Siefen, R., Daum, I., & Güntürkün, O. (2006). Creative thinking in adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Child Neuropsychology, 12(2), 111-123.

White, H. A., & Shah, P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(6), 1121-1131.

Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y., Hashizume, H., Sassa, Y., Nagase, T., Nouchi, R., & Kawashima, R. (2011). Failing to deactivate: the association between brain activity during a working memory task and creativity. Neuroimage, 55(2), 681-687.

Awh, E., & Jonides, J. (2001). Overlapping mechanisms of attention and spatial working memory. Trends in cognitive sciences, 5(3), 119-126.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer. Given that you know a little about attention and WM, perhaps you also know the answer to this question: cogsci.stackexchange.com/q/15894/11318 $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 6:38
  • $\begingroup$ Have had a go :) $\endgroup$
    – queenslug
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I'm trying to do a bit of research on my own, and I'm going to put a bounty on this question in hopes of finding an answer that will tell all of us how to get the best of both worlds - assuming it is possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 13:37

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