Brain Scans of Jazz Musicians Reveal How to Reach a Creative ‘Flow State’

Brain Scans of Jazz Musicians Reveal How to Reach a Creative ‘Flow State’

Both expertise and the ability to release one’s focus can help people enter a state of effortless attention

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Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebooks show that he spent countless hours laboriously developing and revising the musical ideas on which his great compositions were based. It was a torturous and all-consuming process. Beethoven was also the most gifted improviser of his time. He would sit at the piano and create, on demand, fleeting compositions so beautiful and imposing that they would reduce people to tears.

Beethoven illustrates two modes of creativity that can be used at different times by the same person. Most people are familiar with the arduous type—the creative struggle—from personal experience. Generating a stream of high-quality creative ideas is difficult. But the latter kind—the flow state, or the experience of being “in the zone”—is more elusive.

Since psychological scientist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi first identified flow and systematically studied it in the 1970s, this state of “effortless attention” has gained widespread interest. It is believed to enhance innovation, productivity, meaning making and joy. But until recently, all that was known about flow came from introspection and behavioral research. That body of work revealed important characteristics of the flow state but left basic, though important, questions unanswered. In particular, researchers knew little about its inner mechanisms, which hindered the development of techniques for training or inducing flow to boost one’s creative production.


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In a new study from Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab, we addressed this gap by posing a basic question about the nature of creative flow: Does it involve intense concentration and hyperfocus of attention—or does it involve release of attention and “letting go”?

Our study examined flow in the context of jazz improvisation. Jazz has been used in several previous studies of creative production because it requires the generation of a continuous, spontaneous stream of ideas that can be recorded in real time and rated after the fact for creativity and other characteristics. We recruited 32 jazz guitarists for the study. Some were relative novices, while others were highly experienced, as measured by the number of performances, or “gigs,” that each had given. We directed them to improvise solos on six series of prespecified chords while listening to recorded jazz rhythm section accompaniments. They also rated the intensity of the flow state they experienced during each performance. Expert judges later listened to recordings of these improvisations and rated them for creativity and other characteristics.

During their improvisations, we also recorded the musicians’ brain activity using high-density electroencephalography, or EEG. Because these recordings capture signals coming from the electrical activity originating in the muscles, skin, eyes and other areas, we took steps to remove this electrical noise and isolate improvisation-related brain activity. We then used sophisticated algorithms to map the sources of the neural signals in the musicians’ brain.

Notably, the most experienced musicians reported, on average, greater intensity and frequency of flow states. Substantial experience with a task may therefore be a precondition for experiencing flow. This finding makes sense because it is difficult to imagine feeling effortless attention while performing an unfamiliar task. Also unsurprising was that, on average, the judges rated the experts’ improvisations as being more creative than the novices’ improvisations.

Next, to identify brain regions associated with the flow state, we compared brain activity during high-flow performances relative to low-flow performances. One striking finding was that high-flow performances were associated with reduced activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, which are associated with executive function and cognitive control. This supports the idea that flow is a state of low cognitive control rather than hyperfocus.

Then we compared the most experienced musicians with the least experienced ones. The most experienced participants showed activity in a network of brain areas associated with hearing and vision during a flow state—sensory regions that were not activated in the low-experience musicians. Decades of practice and performance apparently led to the development of a specialized brain network for jazz guitar improvisation.

So it seems that creative flow can occur when two conditions are met. First, one has to gain expertise by practicing the task enough to develop, or “bake in,” a specialized brain network for performing that task. Second, one must release conscious control so the specialized network can take over and produce ideas automatically, on autopilot, without the performer overthinking what they are doing or becoming overly self-conscious.

All too often, people learning to compose music, play an instrument, write computer code or engage in any other creative activity become frustrated because it can, at first, be a grueling experience. Everyone knows that you have to put in a great deal of practice before you can become fluent at something. The other key ingredient, however, is metacognition, or awareness of howyou are thinking. Once you’ve put in the work, achieving flow relies on learning when to stop overthinking and micromanaging what you are doing and let your expertise take over.

The end product might not be like a Beethoven sonata. But if you can create it during a flow state, it will be your best work, and you will enjoy the process.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at dyuhas@sciam.com.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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