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Describing Flow: An Interaction Between Science and Art

Interest in creativity from a scientific point of view has doubled in the last decade.1 This, I think, is a welcome sign that scientists have become less skeptical about the possibilities of doing research in one of the most complex behavioral processes that humans engage in. But it is also a sign that creators, from artists to inventors, have become more receptive to the notion that creative abilities can be studied in their full intricacy and can be described fairly and interestingly through scientific methods.

Among the processes through which creative behavior takes place is the phenomenon known as Flow. During the Flow state,2 creators lose sense of time and self and immerse themselves in their practice for hours at a time, playfully combining learned and novel elements in a focused exploration of the boundaries of their craft. It is during these sessions of exploratory production that artists and scientists originate many of their novel ideas.

How is Flow possible? We know that refinements in behavioral efficiency or quality are always related to learning. In fact, creators need to develop expertise in their fields3 before Flow can take place. Flow includes a mix of expert skills: some are sensory (the ability to perceive complex sensory patterns on the fly), and some are motor (the ability to move the body in a precise and agile manner). This suggests that Flow is closely related to behavior.

But Flow is also cognitive. In order to produce something novel, artists avail themselves of conceptual information they have obtained through exposure to their field. During Flow, numerous decisions are made one after another based on previously established aesthetic and conceptual memories. Throughout, they use a form of attention that is more reactive than proactive. The attentional focus is open to possibilities, rather than single-mindedly focused on a goal.

As an example, consider jazz improvisation. During improvisation, jazz musicians mobilize their memories of earlier sessions to guide their decisions on what musical ideas to explore next, while at the same time use their sensory-motor skills to maintain rhythmic and melodic motifs. Similarly, during Flow, plastic artists may employ the effects of a previous, perhaps unexpected, mark to take the work in a completely different direction.

While the Flow process has been described in phenomenological terms, its mechanisms at the cognitive and neural levels are much less understood.

Thus far, two characteristics of Flow have prevented its neuroscientific study. One of them is its temporal manifestation: Flow is the product of innumerable instantaneous brain events occurring in a relatively long span of time. The other is that Flow, in general, requires freedom of movement, whether it is dance, plastic expression, music, etc. Neuroscientific methods, unfortunately, are mostly unable to provide neural information at that level of granularity.

Nonetheless, some compelling results have been obtained from the few brain mapping studies of Flow. The work of Charles Limb comes to mind. Limb has been able to record jazz musicians during improvisation sessions using a keyboard while in the scanner.4While the results have been interesting, it is clear that a lot of work remains to be done if we are to understand what the Flow state actually is.

Scientists are not the only ones interested in describing Flow, however. As suggested above, more and more artists are wondering what exactly is behind their creative processes. Indeed, both artists and scientists now have more than a passing interest in each other’s disciplines. For example, as is the case with Limb, some scientists have a strong background in particular artistic forms, and correspondingly, some artists are well versed in scientific methodologies.

In order to describe Flow, we will need artists and scientists to work together. Interested and informed creators who straddle both sides of the illusory divide between art and science can collaborate and, in parallel, enrich their own practice. For example, scientists need to find ways to quantify the large amounts of behavioral output occurring during Flow. This can best be achieved with the help of the artist, who can provide relevant insights as to each decision taken during the work. Artists, likewise, might use the feedback obtained from scientists to take their work in directions that they could not otherwise have imagined.

But there is no substitute for being able to speak the same language. This is the task in front of us: a deliberate effort to understand each other better. That will require that we interact rather than remain within the silos of our professions.

Notes

  1. Based on the number of published manuscripts indexed by PubMed.gov, the database maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow, the psychology of optimal experience.
  3. viz. the 10-year rule (Simon & Chase, 1973) or the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice rule (Ericsson et al., 1993).
  4. Limb & Braun (2008)

Contributor

Luis F. Schettino

LUIS F. SCHETTINO is Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.

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