This shows a colorful brain.
This shows that expertise enables flow. Credit: Neuroscience News

Unlocking Creative Flow: How the Brain Enters the Zone

Summary: A new study unveils how the brain enters the creative flow state, famously known as being “in the zone.” By analyzing jazz improvisations through EEGs, the research confirms that creative flow combines extensive experience with a conscious release of control, allowing for automatic idea generation.

This “expertise-plus-release” model suggests that deep creative flow is more accessible to those with significant experience and the ability to let go. The findings offer a new understanding of flow, challenging previous theories and opening avenues for enhancing creativity through practice and relinquishment of control.

Key Facts:

  1. The study supports the “expertise-plus-release” theory of creative flow, indicating that expertise and the ability to release control are essential for achieving deep creative states.
  2. High-flow states are associated with increased activity in the brain’s auditory and touch areas, and decreased activity in executive control regions, supporting the idea of reduced conscious control during creative flow.
  3. Practical implications suggest that achieving productive flow states requires building expertise in a creative field and then training to “let go,” enabling the brain’s specialized circuits to operate autonomously.

Source: Drexel University

Effortless, enjoyable productivity is a state of consciousness prized and sought after by people in business, the arts, research, education and anyone else who wants to produce a stream of creative ideas and products.

That’s the flow, or the sense of being “in the zone.” A new neuroimaging study from Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab is the first to reveal how the brain gets to the creative flow state.

The study isolated flow-related brain activity during a creative task: jazz improvisation. The findings reveal the creative flow state involves two key factors: extensive experience, which leads to a network of brain areas specialized for generating the desired type of ideas, plus the release of control – “letting go” – to allow this network to work with little or no conscious supervision.

Credit: Neuroscience News

Led by John Kounios, PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and Creativity Research Lab director, and David Rosen, PhD, a recent graduate from the College and Johns Hopkins University postdoc – the team determined their results suggest that creative flow can be achieved by training people to release control when they have built up enough expertise in a particular domain.

“Flow was first identified and studied by the pioneering psychological scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,” said Kounios. “He defined it as ‘a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’”

Kounios noted that although flow has long been a topic of public fascination as well as the focus of hundreds of behavioral research studies, there has been no consensus about what flow is. Their new study decided between different theories of how flow is involved when people produce creative ideas.

Theory: Is Flow a State of Hyperfocus?

One view is that flow might be a state of highly focused concentration or hyperfocus that shuts out extraneous thoughts and other distractions to enable superior performance on a task.

A related theory based on recent research on the neuroscience of creativity is that flow occurs when the brain’s “default-mode network,” a collection of brain areas that work together when a person daydreams or introspects, generates ideas under the supervision of the “executive control network” in the brain’s frontal lobes, which directs the kinds of ideas the default-mode network produces. Kounios likened it to the analogy of a person “supervising” a TV by picking the movie it streams.

Alternative Theory: Flow is Expertise Plus Letting Go

An alternative theory of creative flow is that through years of intense practice, the brain develops a specialized network or circuit to automatically produce a specific type of ideas, in this case musical ones, with little conscious effort. In this view, the executive control network relaxes its supervision so that the musician can “let go” and allow this specialized circuit to go on “autopilot” without interference.

The research team said the key to this notion is the idea that people who do not have extensive experience at a task or who have difficulty releasing control will be less likely to experience deep creative flow.

The study’s results support the “expertise-plus-release” view of creative flow.

The researchers tested these competing theories of creative flow by recording high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) from 32 jazz guitar players, some highly experienced and others less experienced. Each musician improvised to six jazz lead sheets (songs) with programmed drums, bass and piano accompaniment and rated the intensity of their flow experience for each improvisation.

The resulting 192 recorded jazz improvisations, or “takes,” were subsequently played for four jazz experts individually so they could rate each for creativity and other qualities. The researchers then analyzed the EEGs to discover which brain areas were associated with high-flow takes (compared to low-flow takes).

The high-experience musicians experienced flow more often and more intensely than the low-experience musicians. This shows that expertise enables flow. However, expertise is not the only factor contributing to creative flow.

The EEGs showed that a high-flow state was associated with increased activity in left-hemisphere auditory and touch areas that are involved in hearing and playing music. Importantly, high flow was also associated with decreased activity in the brain’s superior frontal gyri, an executive control region.

This is consistent with the idea that creative flow is associated with reduced conscious control, that is, letting go. This previously hypothesized phenomenon has been called “transient hypofrontality.” 

For the high-experience musicians, flow was associated with greater activity in auditory and vision areas. However, they also showed reduced activity in parts of the default-mode network, suggesting that the default-mode network was not contributing much to flow-related idea generation in these musicians.

In contrast, the low-experience musicians showed little flow-related brain activity.  

“A practical implication of these results is that productive flow states can be attained by practice to build up expertise in a particular creative outlet coupled with training to withdraw conscious control when enough expertise has been achieved,” said Kounios. “This can be the basis for new techniques for instructing people to produce creative ideas.”

Kounios added, “If you want to be able to stream ideas fluently, then keep working on those musical scales, physics problems or whatever else you want to do creatively—computer coding, fiction writing—you name it. But then, try letting go. As jazz great Charlie Parker said, ‘You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.’”

About this creativity and neuroscience research news

Author: Annie Korp
Source: Drexel University
Contact: Annie Korp – Drexel University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Creative flow as optimized processing: Evidence from brain oscillations during jazz improvisations by expert and non-expert musicians” by John Kounios et all. Neuropsychologia


Creative flow as optimized processing: Evidence from brain oscillations during jazz improvisations by expert and non-expert musicians

Using a creative production task, jazz improvisation, we tested alternative hypotheses about the flow experience: (A) that it is a state of domain-specific processing optimized by experience and characterized by minimal interference from task-negative default-mode network (DMN) activity versus (B) that it recruits domain-general task-positive DMN activity supervised by the fronto-parietal control network (FPCN) to support ideation. We recorded jazz guitarists’ electroencephalograms (EEGs) while they improvised to provided chord sequences.

Their flow-states were measured with the Core Flow State Scale. Flow-related neural sources were reconstructed using SPM12. Over all musicians, high-flow (relative to low-flow) improvisations were associated with transient hypofrontality. High-experience musicians’ high-flow improvisations showed reduced activity in posterior DMN nodes.

Low-experience musicians showed no flow-related DMN or FPCN modulation. High-experience musicians also showed modality-specific left-hemisphere flow-related activity while low-experience musicians showed modality-specific right-hemisphere flow-related deactivations.

These results are consistent with the idea that creative flow represents optimized domain-specific processing enabled by extensive practice paired with reduced cognitive control.

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