The Neuroscience of Flow and Creativity


Article / Creativity

Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness in which we feel our best and we perform our best.1

More specifically, the term refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption when we get so focused on the task at hand that everything else seems to disappear. The sense of self seems to disappear, time dilates, and all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, are greatly amplified. Synonyms for this state include "runner's high", "being in the zone" and being "unconscious".2

Creativity can be defined as the ability to produce work that is both novel (ie. original, unexpected) and appropriate (ie. useful, adaptive concerning task constraints).3,4

Over the past fifty years, as research into creativity has seen a considerable uptick, the topic has been written about from social, psychological, developmental, cognitive, and historical perspectives, and various theories have emerged from this work.5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16

Advances in cognitive neuroscience have given us initial insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of the creative process while research on insightful problem solving, creative cognition, and expertise acquisition, as well as historic case studies of individuals with exceptional creative accomplishments, have paved the way for a scientific approach toward understanding creativity.17,18

Anecdotal and Intuitive Links Between Flow and Creativity

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests a positive causal relationship between flow states and creativity.

During comprehensive interviews with action and adventure sport athletes, US military special forces, technology companies, artists and musicians, it was found that self-perceived increases in creativity were highly associated with flow.19,20 Numerous accounts from distinguished individuals in the arts and sciences report that the state of flow has also enabled and intensified their creative process.21

Additionally, there are intuitive and anecdotal links between flow and creativity. The characteristics of flow, such as loss of self-consciousness and high concentration, seem to overlap with anecdotal descriptions of creative experiences. For example, in colloquial speech, "being in the zone", which is a synonym for flow, is also used to describe a state of heightened creativity.

Existing Literature on Flow and Creativity

There are a number of existing sources that directly address the relationship between flow and creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi's text 'Beyond Boredom and Anxiety' and his more recent text 'Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention' suggests that the characteristics of flow are highly intertwined with the creative process.22 There are two primary reasons Csikszentmihalyi suggests this.

First, there is the concept of effortless attention. Intuitively, one might presume that the more challenging a mental activity, the more effort will be exerted. However, when in flow, greater challenge results in less subjective effort and less resulting self-regulatory fatigue.

Second, flow is a state of complete focus, but at the same time cognition appears to be driven by free association and implicit processes rather than by explicit rational reasoning or self referential thought. This state of unforced concentration may spur novel and relevant ideas.

So, according to Csikszentmihalyi, flow may promote creativity in at least two ways: First, by promoting the hard work which is required to gain necessary knowledge to pursue an idea. Second, the state itself may facilitate creative thinking.

Additional studies have found significant correlations between a. levels of flow in music students and quality of their group composition as measured by creativity ratings,23 b. levels of flow and heightened group creativity and quality of performance in both ensemble performance and improvisational jazz24 and, c. levels of flow and levels of engagement, enjoyment and absorption in the creative writing process.25

Arne Dietrich, who conducted the foundational research on flow and transient hypofrontality, explores the neurological profile of creativity in his text 'How Creativity Happens in the Brain'. He suggests that "Flow represents a third mode of creativity, alongside the deliberate and spontaneous modes of creative thinking" due to the fact that flow appears to involve processing in the implicit system.26

Furthermore, research done at Harvard by Teresa Amabile found that individuals see a spike in creativity for a number of days after experiencing an affective state similar to that experienced during flow. Amabile also found that creative insights were consistently associated with flow states.27

Beyond this, a study conducted at the University of Sydney found that creative problem solving increased after subjects experienced a state comparable to flow, which was artificially induced via transcranial magnetic stimulation. Subjects were given a classic test of creative problem solving: the nine-dot problem.

Under normal circumstances, fewer than 5 percent of subjects successfully solve the nine-dot problem. In their control group, no one did. In the flow-induced group, 40 percent successfully solved the problem, making this group 40 percent more successful at this creative challenge than the norm.28

Additionally, research carried out by DARPA and Advanced Brain Monitoring used neurofeedback to artificially induce a state comparable to flow, and they found that soldiers solved complex creative problems and mastered new skills up to 490% faster than normal.29,30

Associations have also been drawn between the notion of "group flow" and creative problem solving, due to the possibility that the collaborative nature of this state may accelerate the problem solving process.31

A meta-analysis which provided a first approximation of how creative cognition may map onto the brain, found that free associations, divergent thinking, imagination and silencing the internal critic all rely upon a reduction in the activation of the Executive Attention Network and an increase in activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks.32

These findings directly align with research done on the brain states of jazz musicians and rappers who were in flow during creative improvisation.33,34 This apparent similarity between the brain state that defines both flow and creativity has lead prominent creativity researchers to explicitly infer a causal relationship between flow and creativity.35,36

Relationships Between Brainwave Signature of Flow and Creativity

There is good reason to believe that the use of EEG to measure brainwave states and their association with creativity is a valuable means of furthering our understanding of the cognitive processes involved in creativity.37

Interestingly, the brainwave signature of flow is similar to various brainwave signatures which have been associated with heightened creativity. During Flow, brain waves move from beta to the borderline between alpha and theta.38,39

This brainwave state is similar to the hypnagogic state which has been associated with heightened Creativity.40 Studies have also found that the occurrence of Theta brainwaves, which occur during Flow, are conducive to improvements in creative performance.41

Furthermore, EEG research has shown that the "readiness state" for sudden creative insight occurs during a theta brainwave state that has intermittent gamma wave activity.42,43

Flow may "neurologically poise" individuals for creative insight which would serve to increase creative decision making abilities

Finally, aspects of the actual brainwave signature of Flow, which is characterised by moderate to low alpha activity and high theta, have been directly linked to Creativity. One EEG study revealed that the generation of original ideas was associated with alpha synchronisation in frontal brain regions and with a diffuse and widespread pattern of alpha synchronisation over parietal cortical regions.44

Neuroanatomical Link between Flow and Creativity

Transient hypofrontality, the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, has been shown to occur during flow.45,46 It is also seen as being a partial cause of the loss of self-consciousness that is synonymous with flow.47

It appears that transient hypofrontality may positively influence creativity. This speculation is based on the reduction in self-monitoring and impulse control and the increasingly integrative brain functionality that accompanies transient hypofrontality. Neuroanatomically, with the prefrontal cortex largely deactivated, the "inner critic" shuts off and the inner monologue, that can hinder creative expression, is rendered silent.

This appears to enhance receptivity to novel experiences, which are foundational in the generation of new ideas due to decreased inhibition, and increase the likelihood of acting upon those new ideas. This speculation has some empirical support.

In one study the artificial induction of transient hypofrontality resulted in an increase in creative problem solving. The novelty of the creative insights produced by the subjects increased and they were capable of solving creative problems in less time than the control subjects.48

Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness and Creativity

Flow sits inside the broader category of non-ordinary states of consciousness.

There are strong theoretical reasons for believing that non-ordinary states of consciousness may be conducive to improvements in creativity. Non-ordinary states of consciousness tend to facilitate information richness, perspective shift and heightened lateral thinking.

It is suggested that these characteristics of non-ordinary states can compensate for the frequent limitations we face when using rational binary logic alone to solve difficult creative challenges. Furthermore, the ability to hold conflicting perspectives simultaneously and leverage the friction between them to synthesize new ideas is characteristic of non-ordinary states. This process has been said to be an integral part of creative problem solving.49

The research that already exists on various non-ordinary states, such as meditation, drug-induced peak experiences, awe and flow, also suggest that these states have an ability to heighten creativity.50 For example, there appears to be a link between meditation and creativity.

Research done on Tibetan Buddhists in the 1990's found that longtime contemplative practice can produce brain waves in the gamma range which primarily occur during the "binding" phase of the creative process, when novel ideas are generated for the first time.51,52 This suggests that meditation may amplify the initial stages of creative problem solving.

Furthermore, work done at the University of North Carolina also found that just four days of meditation produced significant improvements in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity and cognitive flexibility.53

Another study found that focused attention based meditation and open monitoring meditation exerts specific effects on creativity. Open monitoring meditation induces a control state that promotes divergent thinking, a style of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated. For comparison, focused attention meditation was found to minimize convergent thinking, the process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem.54

Additionally, non-ordinary states of consciousness produced by psychedelic drugs have also been associated with heightened creativity.

The International Foundation for Advanced Study at Menlo Park, California conducted a study on twenty-seven test subjects who had been struggling to solve a highly technical problem over a prolonged period of time. The subjects were given minor doses of either LSD or mescaline and then tested across nine categories of cognitive performance. They then spent four hours working on their predetermined problems. All of the subjects experienced a boost in creativity with some as high as 200 percent.55

The combination of this empirical evidence and our initial theoretical assumptions serves to solidify the assumption that non-ordinary states of consciousness, with flow being one among many non-ordinary states, may positively influence creativity. Furthermore, if the broader characteristics of non-ordinary states heighten creativity, it appears reasonable to infer flow may do the same.56

Neurochemical Similarities Between Flow and Creativity

Dopamine has been claimed to be one of the main neurochemicals that shows up during flow, along with serotonin, anandamide, endorphins and norepinephrine.57

Dopamine is highly correlated with increased artistic output and thus heightened creativity.58 One study examined whether individual performance in divergent thinking and convergent thinking can be predicted by the individual spontaneous eye blink rate (EBR), a clinical marker of dopaminergic functioning.

Convergent thinking was found to be positively correlated with intelligence but negatively correlated with EBR, suggesting that higher dopamine levels impair convergent thinking and supporting the claim that creativity and dopamine are related.59

Given the increase in dopaminergic function that occurs during flow, this is reason to hypothesize that flow may positively influence creativity through a similar mechanism.

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About The Authors

Rian Doris is the Chief Growth Officer Flow Research Collective. Rian holds a BA (Hons) in Philosophy & Economics from Trinity College Dublin and has recently enrolled in an MSc in Applied Neuroscience at King's College London. Rian has worked with multiple Fortune 100 companies implementing peak performance strategies in a consulting capacity. He has also lead research initiatives with Dr. Dan Siegel, Prof, of Psychiatry at UCLA, Imperial College London, University of Southern California, University of Zurich and Claremont Graduate University.

Steven Kotler is the Executive Director Flow Research Collective. Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. He is one of the world's leading experts on high performance. He is the author of eight bestsellers, including Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Tomorrowland, Bold, Abundance, West of Jesus, A Small Furry Prayer and The Angle Quickest for Flight. His writing has been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired and TIME. Both A Small Furry Prayer and Stealing Fire were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He has a BA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA from Johns Hopkins University and, whenever possible, can be found hurling himself down mountains at high speeds.

Conor Murphy is the Chief Science Officer Flow Research Collective. Conor lives at the intersection of data science and optimal psychology, using data and technology to understand and reinforce the best parts of human experience. He transitioned to the tech sector after spending four years leveraging data for more impactful humanitarian interventions in developing countries. Since then he has held a variety of positions including a faculty role for University of New Haven and Galvanize's Master of Science in Data Science program, principal data scientist and consultant for a number of startups and a data scientist and educator for Artificial Intelligence at Databricks. Outside of data, Conor is an avid skydiver, getting into the sport after reading Kotler's The Rise of Superman.

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