Go with the flow: Creativity and Improvisation

Sunday night, 11:42pm.

The deadline for the philosophical essay I’m supposed to write is tomorrow afternoon. Instead, I’m browsing aimlessly Internet, waiting for my muse, my inspiration. To this stage, the reproductive cycle of the tooth-billed pigeon has no secret for me anymore, but my page remains hopelessly empty. The blinking cursor is taunting me. What’s wrong with me?! Why am I having so much trouble? It’s supposed to be my jam!

At the bend of a page, an ad on the side catch my attention.

“Blank-page syndrome? Loss of inspiration? Discover the secret life-hacks used by the most successful artists! Just one-click away!”

Yeah, right. If only. I’m also interested in living forever, do you have something for me? And what about unicorns? I always dreamed to ride one.

creative process
(CC BY-NC 4.0)

Is that situation sounds familiar? Are you as well in search of the Holy Grail of all the procrastinators in the world – the experience of creative flow? Unfortunately there is no magic recipe for creativity – well, not yet. But good news! Neuroscientists are starting to look at this question.

A delicate balance

Before we go further, I think it’s useful to define what exactly an experience of flow is. Flow is a mental state where we are fully present and completely immersed in a creative task. We become so focused that everything else disappears: the outside distractions, our self-awareness and critical judgment. Four hours pass like four minutes, our self-motivation is at its best and we really feel great. It’s effortless, a little ecstasy. For those who experience it, they describe it as the best sensations one can have in life.

For the most skeptical (or unlucky?) of you, let me insist: the experience of flow is not a myth. It has been reported to happen across different classes, genders, ages, cultures and for many types of activities, in everyday life (unlike unicorns). Some argue it may even be the secret of a fulfilling, engaged and happy life.

A lot of psychologists tried to analyze when the experience of flow can happen. Apparently, it’s all about balance between how we perceive the task to be difficult and where we think our skills are at.

Flow theory; source: wiki commons(CC BY-SA 2.0)

We have all experienced the situation when the task ahead seems too hard for us, leaving us in a cycle of unproductive anxiety. On the other side, we have all felt bored, doing a robot-task unworthy of our “mighty” skills. Well, the experience of flow seems to happen exactly in the middle, when the challenge of the task perfectly match our skill level, leaving us feeling aroused and challenged, but in control.

Now that we have a better idea of what creative flow is, let’s see what happens in the brain when people experience it.

The ballet in your brain

In a fMRI study, researchers looked at the brain activity of musicians during jazz improvisation. They observed that the brain region responsible for our higher thinking (the prefrontal cortex) temporarily decreases its activity. Possibly, it is this temporary inactivation of the prefrontal area that might trigger the feeling of distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of inner-critic.

In another study looking at rappers performing a freestyle rap, different brain areas seems to communicate between each other more freely and differently. A unique network is engaged in the creative process, which integrates regions responsible for motivation, language, emotion and body movements. This may be interpreted as the implicit mind (the unconscious, more automatic processing of information) taking over, reflecting intuition, the ability to arrive to a solution without reasoning. Creativity is not the product of one particular brain region. Rather, a lot of areas and networks need to cooperate with each other to get the job done!

In particular, there seems to be three major players involved:

  • The Executive Attention Network, which allow you to deeply focus on not messing up the elaborate dish you’re preparing for the first time (keep track of everything), since you want to impress your crush tonight.
  • The Default Mode Network, sometimes referred as the Imagination network, which is activated when you try to visualize how you’re going to decorate the table, for maximum effect, and fantasizing about how the night will unfold.
  • The Salience Network, which allow you to switch back and forth, from your ideal seating arrangements in your head, to the candle you’re holding in your hand, so you can transfer your vision into reality and rock her/his/its world.
Improvisation is a difficult art; source: wiki commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Creative flow being all about balance, it’s easy to understand that these three networks need to have good communication. For example, during your laborious attempts to come up with something original and meaningful, there are times when you want to think divergently and generate lots of possibilities, so give priority to the Default Mode Network and tune down the Executive attention. But there are times when you want to focus more precisely on a single idea and help it grow and develop, so the opposite pattern should prevail.

Waves and flow

Another way to look at the brain activity is through brainwaves. These EEG studies example one and example two) showed that during flow, the frequency of our brain waves slows down. From the fast-moving beta waves happening when we are in a normal state – awake, it slows down to a frequency between the one happening when we’re deeply relaxed or day-dreaming (alpha waves) and the one (theta waves) happening during REM sleep when it is believed we are dreaming (check out Alex’s post to find out more about dreams and REM sleep!). In these two states, our thoughts slip through without internal resistance and sometimes combine in a very unusual way. Remember these weird non-sense dream last night, where one moment you were slaying a dragon with a pointy watering can; and the next one eating (dragon?) lasagna with your parents in a submarine? Now you see what these slow brain waves can do to your creativity!

 Train our creativity – A distant future?

We have seen what happen in our brain when we experience creative flow. As Cognitive Neuroscience is still a young field, it’s important to note that there are only a few number of studies looking at the experience of flow, so their conclusions must be taken with care and not over-generalize. Nevertheless, the topic is expanding and future studies may be helpful to understand the characteristics associated with flow and maybe one day allow us to learn how to tap into this precious mental resource and train ourselves to be more creative! Who doesn’t want to be able to enter this state at will?!

source: memegenerator  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this direction, there seems to be a lot of similarities between the experience of flow and meditation. Both seems to be a form of concentration uninhibited by our internal critics when we’re fully immersed in the moment. As experiencing flow can reveals itself very difficult if other distractions constantly disrupt this experience, mindfulness meditation could be of a help.

To conclude, I have to say, maybe the biggest irony of them all, is that while writing an article on creative flow, I actually never reached this state, and I’m still looking for it…

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