Creative Flow As Optimized Processing - Deepstash

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The Elusive Flow

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.


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Expertise Plus Release

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.


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And Nothing Else Matters

Flow was first identified and studied by the pioneering psychological scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 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.”

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.


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“Classic” Theory: Flow Is 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.


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“Classic” Theory Spin-off: Flow Is A Supervising Director Mode

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. The analogy would be that of a person “supervising” a TV by picking the movie it streams.


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“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, with little conscious effort. In this view, the executive control network relaxes its supervision so that the person can “let go” and allow this specialized circuit to go on “autopilot” without interference. 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.


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Train To Get Hold Of. Then Train To Let Go.

A practical implication of the study’s 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. This can be the basis for new techniques for instructing people to produce creative ideas.

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.


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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.



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“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison


New Study Reveals How the Brain Achieves a Flow State.

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