Journal of Cognitive Enhancement

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 193–199 | Cite as

Exercise and Creativity: Can One Bout of Yoga Improve Convergent and Divergent Thinking?

  • Kathleen F. Donnegan
  • Annalisa Setti
  • Andrew P. Allen
Original Article


While creativity is a vastly debated topic, little research has been dedicated to determining whether exercise can boost cognitive factors associated with creativity, such as divergent thinking. Yoga, as a form of exercise, comprises physical activity and open-monitoring meditation, which may increase divergent thinking. We compared performance on a test of divergent thinking in healthy adults, the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA), and one test of convergent thinking and field independence, the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT), before and after one session of ashtanga yoga, and one session of aerobic exercise. Divergent thinking was not affected by either intervention overall; however, fluency of novel ideas generated was reduced post-intervention in both groups. Practice effects were registered for the convergent thinking task, and those in the yoga group performed better at this task both at baseline and following yoga, although yoga did not lead to a greater change from baseline performance. The current findings do not suggest that one bout of yoga is associated with an immediate cognitive benefit. However, further research is required onto whether long-term yoga practice may enhance divergent thinking.


Creativity Divergent thinking Exercise Yoga 


There is an established link between cognitive performance and physical exercise (Colcombe and Kramer 2003; Hillman et al. 2008; Kelly et al. 2014). Whether one bout of exercise can provide immediate cognitive benefits remains a debated topic (Chang et al. 2012; Ferris et al. 2007; O’Brien et al. 2017; Tomporowski 2003). Creativity is crucial in many applied settings, and a key psychological factor underlying innovation (e.g. Marrocu and Paci 2012; Williams and McGuire 2010; but cf. Allen 2011; Cropley et al. 2010); therefore, it is a topic of central concern for cognitive enhancement to determine whether a more creative mental state can be obtained, even for a brief period, with short interventions such as one bout of exercise.

There is some evidence that aerobic exercise can enhance performance on creative thinking tasks (e.g. Blanchette et al. 2005; Colzato et al. 2013; Steinberg et al. 1997); however, the relationship between exercise and creativity is still underexplored.

Meditation is emerging as a creativity-enhancing practice (Colzato et al. 2012; see also review by Lippelt et al. 2014, see also Lebuda et al. 2016). Open-monitoring meditation involves the monitoring of awareness itself, as opposed to focussed attention meditation, which involves maintaining attention on a given object (see review by Colzato and Hommel 2017). Evidence suggests that open-monitoring meditation enhances divergent thinking, while focussed attention mediation enhances convergent thinking (Colzato et al. 2012). Intuitive/associative thinking and logical/analytical thinking can both play a role in creative thought (Allen and Thomas 2011), and shifting between the two may be key to creative performance (Sowden et al. 2015) depending on the task at hand. Further, these two modes of thought may be associated with breadth of attention, with the analytical style being associated with focussed attention and the intuitive style with a wider breadth of attention (e.g. Howard-Jones 2002). Breadth of attention may impact upon creative thinking (Kasof 1997); in fact, Colzato et al. (2012) suggested that the key difference between open monitoring and focused attention meditation in fostering creativity is the cognitive control state induced: higher cognitive control for focused attention meditation and lower cognitive control for open monitoring meditation. Along this line Baas et al. (2014) have shown that the effect of mindfulness on creativity is not generalised, but depends on the ability to be open to observing internal and external stimuli occurring during meditation.

Integrative mind-body training, focussed on a meditative state associated with a sense of harmony between body and mind, has also been shown to enhance divergent thinking (Ding et al. 2014) possibly because it includes a meditation component. Although previous research did not find a positive effect of 25 min of yoga stretching on divergent thinking (Khasky and Smith 1999), it is possible that a longer yoga session with a strong emphasis on the meditative component of yoga may produce a clearer effect.

In the present study, we aimed to assess whether ashtanga yoga can have a beneficial effect on creative thinking, due to its emphasis on meditation components, including open-monitoring mindfulness, as well as its emphasis on body awareness. To assess whether such benefit, should it be observed, is specific to yoga or more generally due to exercising, a group of participants performing aerobic exercise was used as the control group. Specifically, we aimed to examine whether a single bout of yoga could increase divergent and/or convergent thinking in healthy adults. Given the brevity of our intervention, our aim was to demonstrate a brief induction of a more creative cognitive state, rather than the acquisition of a skill or a lasting change in creative ability.

To assess divergent thinking, we utilised the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) (Torrance 1966/1999), which explores different dimensions of creativity, as well as providing an overall index. We also assessed convergent thinking on a test of field independence, the Group Embedded Figure Test (Witkin et al. 1971). It is possible that yoga may enhance divergent thinking specifically, based on its mindfulness component; alternatively, it is possible that yoga may enhance convergent thinking, fostering field independence (Sridevi et al. 1995), in turn associated with problem solving abilities (Davis and Haueisen 1976). In contrast, if yoga increased performance both the ATTA and the GEFT, this could provide some evidence for a more general effect of yoga on creative performance, both in terms of divergent and convergent thinking.

The control group, practicing aerobic exercise, was expected to only improve convergent thinking, i.e. performance in the GEFT, as there is no specific focus on open monitoring mediation and mind-body awareness in aerobic exercise.

In addition, we aimed to test the relationship between creativity as assessed in the lab and participants’ self-report of creative achievements, with the hypothesis that individuals practicing yoga would report more creative achievements, and this may be associated with the benefit they would gain from one bout of exercise.



Participants completed either a single ashtanga yoga class or an aerobics class. As participants were already enrolled in such activities, this is a quasi-experimental design. We used two cognitive tasks assessing creativity: one task to assess divergent thinking (Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults) and one task to assess field independence/convergent thinking (Group Embedded Figures Test) (Witkin et al. 1971), which were completed both before (t1) and after (t2) the yoga or aerobics classes. Therefore, we adopted a mixed measure design with type of exercise as a between participants variable and time of testing (t1, t2) as a within participants variable. This study was reviewed and approved by the Applied Psychology Ethics Committee at University College Cork, Ireland.


Thirty-seven healthy adults completed this study. The participants were neither rewarded nor compensated for participating in the study, and participation was completely voluntary. Written informed consent was provided as per the Declaration of Helsinki.

Tasks for the yoga group were conducted at a Yoga centre in Cork (Ireland). Tasks for the aerobics group were conducted at two gyms in Cork city and Mallow, Co. Cork. Participants were tested in situ in a suitably quiet room.


To assess creativity, the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA; Goff and Torrance 2002) was used. The ATTA is made up of three activities which assess verbal and figural divergent thinking. Furthermore, building on the work of J.P. Guilford (e.g. 1957), the ATTA scores for four creative abilities: fluency (quantity of ideas generated), originality (novelty of ideas), elaboration (depth with which ideas are developed) and flexibility (extent to which a creative activity is approached from different perspectives).

There are some previous examples in the literature (in child participants) for administering tests similar to the ATTA repeatedly, although with a period of weeks or months between pre- and post-intervention (Dziedziewicz et al. 2013, 2014). Therefore, to assess the suitability of the task, a small pilot study was conducted to investigate the use of the ATTA in a repeated measures design and assess whether participants were able to generate completely new responses (without building on the t1 responses/stories generated). This pilot study did not include any interventions, but those who completed the pilot study took an hour-long break between the pre and post-tests. The pilot indicated that participants were able to generate new ideas; therefore, at the post-test, participants in the main study were asked to produce new or different responses than they had in the pre-test. As a number of ideas were likely to be used at t1, and participants were requested not to use these same ideas again at t2, it is possible that participants would produce fewer ideas overall at t2 in the ATTA; therefore improved performance should be considered relative to the control group.

To assess convergent thinking and field independence, the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT; Witkin et al. 1971) was used. The GEFT is composed of three timed sections. Participants are asked to find “simple forms,” or simple geometric shapes in “complex figures,” or larger geometric designs. Only the second and third sections are scored. Like the ATTA, participants completed this task both before and after their yoga or aerobics class.

In addition to these cognitive tests, we also used two self-report forms to assess past creative achievement and recent physical activity. To assess previous creative achievement, the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ; Carson, Peterson and Higgins 2005) was used. The CAQ is a reliable and valid self-report questionnaire which assesses past creative achievements (e.g. “I have taken lessons in this area”, “I have sold a piece of my work”) in different domains (e.g. visual arts, music, invention, culinary arts). We used the International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ; see Booth, 2000) to assess self-reported moderate and vigorous physical activity in the previous 7 days.


All tests were administered immediately before the yoga or aerobics class (in counterbalanced order); the ATTA and GEFT were also administered immediately after the class to assess if divergent thinking and field independence had changed. Participants did not know in advance that they would be completing the ATTA and the GEFT tasks again after their yoga or aerobics class. Trained yoga instructors delivered the yoga classes. The Yoga intervention included meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, and physical postures. Each yoga class lasted about 1 h and 15 min. A professional trainer at two gyms in Cork delivered the aerobics exercise. This exercise included basic exercises to music to increase the heart rate. It consisted of a 5-min warm-up, 25 min of aerobics, 10 min conditioning and toning and 5 min stretching. The aerobics exercise lasted about 45 min.

Statistical Analysis

In order to test if yoga and aerobic exercise had differing impact on divergent thinking and field independence, we analysed the interaction between exercise group and pre-post intervention, using mixed factorial analyses of variance (ANOVA), with exercise group as an independent measures variable and time (t1 and t2) as a repeated measures variable. We also examined main effects to see if there were any overall differences between the two exercise groups and any overall effects of repeated assessment for the sample as a whole. Differences between groups in traits such as age, gender, physical activity and past creative achievement were analysed using t tests, Mann-Whitney U or chi-square tests as appropriate.


Participant Characteristics

The two groups did not differ significantly in age of participants t (34) = 1.59, p = 0.12; gender of participants, Χ2 (1) = 0.24, p = 0.69; years of practice in yoga/aerobics, U = 122.5, p = 0.11; time/week of practice, U = 195.5, p = 0.72. Although participants in the aerobics group were somewhat more likely to report lower physical activity, the differences between the groups were non-significant, U = 113, p = 0.08 (see Table 1 for further details).
Table 1

Participants characteristics


Yoga (N = 19)

Aerobics (N = 18)


F = 16, M = 3

F = 14, M = 4


Mean = 41.3 years (SD = 11.2)

Mean = 48.4 years (SD = 15.1)


High school graduate = 1

Some high school = 2

Some college credit = 3

High school graduate = 2

Bachelor’s degree = 6

Some college credit = 3

Master’s degree = 6

Bachelor’s degree = 2

Professional degree = 3

Master’s degree = 6

Trade/vocational training = 1

No response = 2

Years of practice of yoga/aerobics (number of participants)

Less than 1 year = 2

Less than 1 year = 6

1 year = 4

1 year = 2

2–3 years = 8

2–3 years = 3

More than 4 years = 5

More than 4 years = 7

Times/week of practice

Less than once a week = 0

Less than once a week = 3

Once a week = 2

Once a week = 2

2–3 times a week = 8

2–3 times a week = 8

More than 3 times a week = 7

More than 3 times a week = 5

No response = 2

Physical activity (IPAQ)

Low activity = 1

Low activity = 6

Moderate activity = 15

Moderate activity = 11

High activity = 1

High activity = 1

No response = 2


Divergent Thinking and Field Independence

For the ATTA, the pre-test and post-test ATTA scripts were marked by two independent raters, and the intraclass correlations indicated an acceptable level of agreement at both pre-test (r = .799) and post-test (r = .706).

A 2 (exercise group: yoga and aerobics) × 2 (time: t1 and t2) mixed factorial ANOVA was performed on the ATTA. Although divergent thinking increased slightly in the yoga group and remained the same in the aerobic group, this difference was not significant, as shown by the lack of significant interaction, F(1, 35) = 1.01, p = .32, η p 2 = .03 (see Fig. 1), nor was there a main effect of exercise group (p = .72) or time (p = .31) on divergent thinking. Similarly, for specific creative abilities, the exercise groups did not differ significantly on change in fluency, originality, elaboration or flexibility; however, there was a significant main effect of time, with participants generating fewer ideas post-intervention (see Table 2).
Fig. 1

Divergent thinking as assessed using the ATTA (Abbreviated Torrance Test of creative thinking in Adults) at baseline and following either yoga or aerobic exercise (error bars represent standard error of the mean)

Table 2

Creative abilities at baseline and following yoga or aerobic exercise




Exercise X pre-post


Exercise group



14.8 (0.7)

14 (0.6)

p = .69

p = .03

p = .77



14.8 (0.7)

14.2 (0.6)




16.2 (0.6)

16.2 (0.7)

p = .88

p < .99

p = .40



15.3 (0.7)

15.3 (0.6)




13 (1.1)

14.3 (0.5)

p = .1

p = .28

p = .36



14.8 (0.7)

14.6 (0.5)




12.4 (0.8)

13.3 (0.3)

p = .57

p = .30

p = .85



12.7 (0.9)

12.9 (0.3)


SEM in parentheses. The p values refer to significance of interaction (exercise X time) and main effects of pre-post and exercise group in the factorial ANOVA

The exercise groups did not differ in their change on the GEFT, F(1, 33) = 0.45, p = .51, η p 2 = 0.01; however, both groups improved significantly following yoga/aerobic exercise, F(1, 33) = 19.87, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.38, possibly due to a practice effect (see Fig. 2). The yoga group scored significantly higher than the aerobic exercise group overall, F(1, 33) = 7.76, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.19. However, an exploratory analysis of correlations between age, frequency of practice and the dependent variables (ATTA and GEFT before and after exercise) revealed that there was no significant correlation with performance on the ATTA, while age (p < 0.01) and times/week of practice (p < 0.05) were correlated with performance on the GEFT. Considering that age and years of education were highly correlated, while time/week of practice and the other two variables were not, we introduced age and time/week of practice as covariates for the GEFT. In this new analysis, age was significant, F(1, 30) = 4.9, p < 0.05, η p 2 = 0.14, there was a trend for an effect of time (p = 0.06) and no effect of exercise type.
Fig. 2

Field dependence as assessed using the GEFT(Group Embedded Figures Test) at baseline and following either yoga or aerobic exercise (error bars represent standard error of the mean)

The yoga group had on average higher past creative achievement than the aerobic exercise group, although this difference was not significant, t(33) = 0.98, p = .34 (see Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Past creative achievement as assessed using the CAQ (Creative Achievement Questionnaire) in the yoga and aerobic exercise groups (error bars represent standard error of the mean)


In the present study, we tested whether one single bout of exercise was sufficient to provide significant improvement in creative thinking performance measured with a divergent thinking task, the ATTA and a convergent thinking task, the GEFT. Given yoga’s focus on open-monitoring meditation and body awareness, we hypothesised that participants in the yoga group would see an immediate boost in their divergent thinking, compared to an aerobics control group. However, although divergent thinking increased in the yoga group, while remaining the same in the aerobic exercise group, this finding was not statistically significant. Despite previous evidence that responses on divergent thinking tasks may improve over a single test session (Beaty and Silvia 2012), repeated testing did not appear to affect divergent thinking overall. However, fluency of ideas was lower in both groups when they completed the tests a second time; this is perhaps not surprising as they were instructed not to produce the same ideas a second time, and consequently were likely to have exhausted at least some of their ideas with the previous attempt. It was interesting in this regard that there was not a compensatory increase in originality of ideas, as it might be expected that reduced fluency of ideas might be at least partly due to the most obvious (and therefore least original) ideas being exhausted when participants completed the ATTA for the first time.

The two groups were relatively similar in age and gender profile, as well as their recent physical activity, and did not differ in their overall baseline performance on the ATTA. Nonetheless, in longer-term practitioners, many movement routines are overlearned and automatized, which can lead to dramatic reductions of conscious monitoring and control demands (Beilock and Carr 2001; Schneider and Chein 2003). Moreover, long-term fitness training leads to an increase of oxygenation and glucose in the frontal brain regions, which has been found to produce rather selective benefits for executive-control processes (Colcombe and Kramer 2003). This means that high-level practitioners may not exhibit the same effects as low-level practitioners. While the latter should show practice-induced costs in more control-demanding tasks (like convergent thinking), the former might either not show such costs or perhaps even show exercise-induced benefits.

Randomisation to a yoga or aerobic exercise group will be important for stronger evidence of any acute or intervention effects in future research; such a randomised trial could include participants who had never participated in either yoga (or meditation) or an aerobics class, in order to assess whether creative performance may be enhanced for those who have not previously experienced yoga. A study on novices may find results with a longer intervention (over multiple weeks); for example, field independence may increase in people learning yoga for the first time. Alternatively, a “switched session” could be employed, whereby people who usually practice yoga could take part in an aerobics class and vice versa. The present evidence suggests that yoga practice that contains meditation components but is not targeted towards meditation or mindfulness specifically may not produce enhancement in creativity, at least as assessed by a relatively complex task such as the ATTA.

In their GEFT scores, the yoga group displayed greater field independence, consistent with previous research on yoga and field independence (Sridevi et al. 1995); this difference was observed both at baseline and post-yoga. These findings suggest that open-monitoring meditation may be associated not only with enhanced divergent thinking, as reported by Colzato et al. (2012), but also enhanced convergent thinking. However, the effect of age as covariate should be noted. It is interesting that the yoga group displayed higher field independence. However, our data do not offer strong support for field independence as a mediating factor between yoga and creativity, given the lack of a clear overall effect of yoga on creative thinking performance on the ATTA. The two groups showed a similar increase in their GEFT scores over time; however, this is likely due to a practice effect; a parallel version of the GEFT would be useful for future research.

While divergent thinking is an important aspect of creativity, there are a variety of methods of assessing creativity that would be of interest to examine. For example, it is possible that yoga, and particularly the open-monitoring meditation involved in yoga practices, may help to overcome functional fixedness, i.e. the failure to consider different potential functions of an object, in creative problem solving (Duncker 1945). An open awareness of different thoughts and stimuli could counter a mental fixation on repeatedly using the same method to obtain a better outcome.

In conclusion, the current results do not suggest that a single bout of yoga can enhance divergent thinking compared to a single bout of aerobics. Nonetheless, the observed differences between those practicing yoga and aerobics may be suggestive of more long-term effects of practising yoga.



The authors wish to acknowledge Amy Jordan and Maeve McLoughlin for assistance with data collection, as well as the gyms that hosted the exercise groups.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Applied PsychologyUniversity College CorkCorkIreland
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyMaynooth UniversityMaynoothIreland

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