Flow state. How to fall into an unconscious state and what contributes to this?

Flow state. How to fall into an unconscious state and what contributes to this?

One of the clear signs of increased efficiency and productivity is a state of flow. A state in which a person is selflessly and absolutely devoted to the goal and dissolves in the process, without being distracted by annoying and distracting factors. And for the first time, scientists touched on the true nature of this process.

Brain waves, creativity and flow state

As part of the research scientists analyzed the brain waves of jazz musicians playing melodies while improvising as they went. Thanks to this, it was possible to understand how the brain reaches a state of creative flow. The results have a practical meaning for every person – not only musicians – who want to get into the zone of generating creative ideas.

What is your flow state?

The state of flow is when a person is completely involved in performing any activity to the extent that he is almost not aware of himself and falls out of reality as much as possible. This phenomenon is often used to describe the work of artists and athletes, but it is sought after by businessmen, researchers, teachers… In fact, anyone who wants to create creative products.

There has been a great deal of research on the nature of the flow state, but most studies have relied on participant self-reports. Researchers from the Creativity Research Laboratory at Drexel University in the US are the first to reveal in a new study how the brain gets into this strange state. The key was the activity of the brain associated with the state of flow during solving a creative task.

The flow state was first described by psychologist Mihaj Csikszentmihalyi. He defined it as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else matters; the experience is so pleasurable that people will maintain the state, even at great expense, just to be in it.

John Kunios, author of the study.

How to feel the flow state?

A prime example of how musicians enter a state of flow can be seen in an interview about the Disney and Pixar film 2020 “Soul”. Participants shared how they experienced a state of complete absorption and concentration. In the video, some of the film’s music performers talk about their own experiences with this phenomenon.

Although the flow state is widely studied, there is no consensus on what it is in terms of brain functioning. One theory is that the flow state occurs when the areas of the brain responsible for fantasy and dreaming, which are part of the basal network, generate ideas under the control of the “executive control network” in the frontal lobes of the brain. All of this is supported release of dopamine and communication adrenaline acetylcholine. John Kunios compares this to how a person “controls” a television by choosing a movie that is broadcast by a station independent of the person.

An alternative theory is that years of performing group tasks form a specialized network in the brain that generates certain ideas with little conscious effort. The executive control network relaxes its control role, so the specialized network can operate on “autopilot” without external intervention. Key to this hypothesis is the idea that people with very little experience or who find it difficult to let go of control over a situation are less likely to enter a state of creative flow.

How was the state of the flow investigated?

The researchers recruited a sample of 32 jazz guitarists. Participants were divided into very experienced and less experienced. As part of the study, scientists recorded high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) of brain activity while participants improvised six jazz songs accompanied by drums, bass and piano. Participants were asked to rate how intensely they experienced the flow state of each improvisation. Each improvisation was evaluated by four jazz experts individually in order to objectively assess the level of knowledge of the participants.

Research progress

Frontal view of the brain. Musicians showed reduced activity in these frontal lobe regions when in a deep flow state. Photo credit: Drexel University

Based on the participants’ ratings, the researchers found that musicians with more experience experienced a state of flow more often and more intensely than musicians with less experience. When the scientists analyzed the EEG to see which brain regions were associated with the deep and superficial experience of the flow state, they found that in the deep flow state, activity decreased in the frontal lobes of the brain, which are associated with conscious control.

For highly experienced musicians, the deep flow state was associated with increased activity in auditory and visual areas and decreased activity in key parts of the underlying neural network. This meant that the underlying network did not contribute much to the generation of flow state-related ideas. Conversely, musicians with low experience showed little brain activity in the area of ​​the brain responsible for maintaining control.

Results and opinion of the authors of the study

Internal imaging of the left and right hemispheres of the brain showed areas of reduced brain activity when the highly experienced musicians were in a state of deep immersion. These areas include key core network sites. Photo credit: Drexel University

Overall, the findings support the experience plus release of control hypothesis of creative flow, which has practical implications for those seeking to enter a flow state.

The practical implication of these results is that a state of productive flow can be achieved through practice to accumulate experience in a particular creative direction, combined with learning to relinquish conscious control when sufficient experience is achieved. This can become the basis of new methods of teaching people to generate creative ideas.

John Kunios, author of the study.

Although this study focused on musicians, the researchers say their findings apply to anyone who wants to lead innovation in any industry.

If you want to be able to communicate ideas freely, keep working on those musical scales, physical challenges, or something else you want to do creatively—programming, writing fiction, whatever. But when you reach the peak – try to let go of control. As the great jazzman Charlie Parker said: You have to learn your instrument. Then you practice, practice, practice. And at the end, when you finally get on the stage, forget about all this and just cry.

John Kunios, author of the study.

So how do you achieve this desired state of flow?

Thousands of hours of purposeful practice and willingness to let go of control in the process of solving a task. It is in pathological fear and retention of control that there is a block that prevents even experienced experts in “their field” from moving from the stage of executor to the stage of creator of concepts.

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