Creativity and Flow Psychology

by Douglas Eby

   "The best moments usually occur when a person's body 
or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort 
to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The author of "Flow - the Psychology of Optimal Experience" and a number of related books, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high) says we can facilitate the conditions for this quality of optimal functioning, and that it may be found in a wide range of careers and activities. 

For his doctoral thesis on "how visual artists create art" he studied photos taken every three minutes as artists created a painting. He says he was "struck by how deeply they were involved in work, forgetting everything else.

"That state seemed so intriguing that I started also looking for it in chess players, in rock climbers, in dancers and in musicians. 

"I expected to find substantial differences in all their activities, but people reported very similar accounts of how they felt. Then, I started looking at professions like surgery and found the same elements there a challenge which provides clear, high goals and immediate feedback... They forget themselves, the time, their problems," he says. 

He cautions that many people misunderstand flow as a kind of "spacing out" and seek it in passive leisure activities. "Most people look so much forward to being home, relaxing. Then they get home and don't know what to do. They aren't challenged, so they sit in front of the TV, depressed." [1] 

Athletes call flow experience being in the "zone" - an optimal psychological and physiological climate for peak performance. Brazilian soccer player Pele has described days when everything was going right, and feeling "a strange calmness I hadn't experienced in any of the other games.

"It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their teams or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt." 

Basketball players, when they experience being "in the zone" report that the basket seems bigger, and feeling an almost mystical connection to it.

The legendary hitter Ted Williams has said that sometimes he could see the seams on a pitched baseball. Gymnast Carol Johnson found that on some days she experienced the balance beam as wider, so "any worry of falling off disappeared." 

Football quarterback star John Brodie told Michael Murphy (author of "The Psychic Side of Sports") that he found periods in every game when "time seems to slow down, in an uncanny way, as if everyone were moving in slow motion. It seems as if I had all the time in the world to watch the receivers run their patterns, and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me just as fast as ever." 

This time dilation experience may relate to studies of psychologist Robert Ornstein in which increased information processing by the brain can result in a "stretching" or slowing down of the experience of time. 

Sports psychologists and trainers use a range of techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, concentration exercises and meditation to help access this "zone". One of the consistent themes of these approaches is the need to "get around" the conscious mind. 

The winner of the 1988 Olympics in archery was a 17-year-old Korean young woman whose training included meditation for two hours a day. 

Archer Tim Strickland has noted that conscious intervention is the great enemy: "Your conscious mind always wants to help you, but usually it messes you up."

Csikszentmihalyi has warned "You can't make flow happen. All you can do is learn to remove obstacles in its way."

He says the effort to recapture the high of a perfect run down a ski slope, for example, will rarely succeed because "you're splitting your attention from what's happening now." 

Acting teacher and consultant Jennifer Lehman notes how that quality of mind can interfere: "It's difficult to achieve a consistent openness, letting things flow through you, without your own judgments, your own personal history, or how you think it should be, interfering with that. I also have a feeling that our thinking mind is different than our feeling mind, and that if we start thinking, we shut down creative expression.

"Thinking is very linear and one dimensional, and we get attached to it and its 'should' and 'ought to' and 'let me go in there and fix it'. 

"When you have a creative experience, it's a very full experience. I liken it to a hologram. It's multidimensional. But if you're making a mental choice about something, for example 'I hate that person', then your experience becomes limited to only that. A creative experience has many layers all at the same time. And if you're trying to juggle a bunch of ideas and keep them all in balance, it's going to limit your availability to feeling states." [3] 

A related concept has been developed by Diane Ackerman, a poet, essayist and naturalist who teaches creativity at Cornell. In her book "Deep Play" she talks about being able to "play anywhere that is set off from reality, whether it be a playground, a field, a church or a garage.

"Deep play doesn't have to do with an activity, like shallow play. It has to do with attitude or an extraordinarily intense state... 

"Swept up by the deeper states of play, one feels balanced, creative, focused... Deep play is an absence of mental noise -- liberating, soothing, and exciting. It means no analysis, no explanation, no promises, no goals, no worries. You are completely open to the drama of life that may unfold." 

Using PET scan technology (Positron Emission Tomography), researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have found that people learning to master a video game show a reduction in the overall metabolism of the brain - less brain activity along with greater skill.

This indicates that increasing ability results in better efficiency: the brain can "relax into" the task. This may be the physiological result, or perhaps a central cause, of decreasing the "static" of non-flow consciousness. [2] 

Csikszentmihalyi points out that "Some flow experiences involve low danger, like reading a good book. But certain people are disposed to respond to risk, and their flow will depend on it more than somebody else's.

"Danger is the hook. But their descriptions are not that different from, say, a Thai woman's description of weaving a rug. The quality of concentration, forgetfulness, involvement, control are similar." 

Some of his recent research relates to the UC Irvine studies: "We found that high school kids who reported flow more frequently performed better in the test situation with much less cortical activity, were less aroused by the tasks, or spent less mental effort responding to the stimuli."

Complexity becomes refined into flow rather than confusion through being ordered and integrated. 

Csikszentmihalyi's suggestions for experiencing flow include picking an enjoyable activity that is at or slightly above your skill level; continually raising the level of challenge as performance improves; screening out distraction as much as possible; focusing attention on all the emotional and sensory qualities of the activity, and looking for regular feedback, or concrete goals to monitor progress, even if it is a large or long-term project with delayed outcome. 

Writing a short story, or raising a child, can be contexts for flow experience: you can see them as a series of short-term steps or events, each having value in engaging one's talents.

Other examples of "flow activities" are games, artistic performances and religious rituals, but Csikszentmihalyi notes that "people seem to get more flow from what they do on their jobs than from leisure activities" - perhaps especially those kinds of jobs which demand full attention, like surgery or computer programming. 

This quality of attention may be what is really at the heart of flow experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., director of a major stress reduction clinic, in his book "Wherever You Go There You Are" suggests exercises in attention: "Draw back the veil of unawareness to perceive harmony in this moment. Can you see it in clouds, in sky, in people, in the weather, in food, in your body, in this breath?... 

"Try being present for things like taking a shower, or eating... Notice the feelings that push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring. Why does your response have to pull you out of the life you were living in the preceding moment?" 

Susan K. Perry, PhD affirms that flow is not a state of 'no mind' or meditativeness as such. "I don't believe that when you get into a creative place, you're giving up thinking," she says. "You're super-thinking -- better and with more parts of your mind than you do normally." 

But having a 'busy mind' can also mean being fragmented, unfocused, distracted. "You want to get to a place which is both loose, relaxed, and focused," she notes. "What I found in my studies of flow are that two things you need to do to get to this place where time stops and you can be most creative, are to loosen up, and focus in. 

"It's a paradox, obviously, to be loose and focused at the same time. And they overlap, and one may come before the other." She also thinks we "choose not to get into flow, which means we aren't able to access our deepest creativity. We choose not to because, perhaps, it's more stimulating to be surrounded by overflowing in-boxes." [4] 

In her book Writing in Flow, Dr. Perry points out an intriguing quality of consciousness associated with flow: "It shouldn't play into any of your anxieties about the loss of control that comes with flow if I share with you that looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking," she writes. 

"Schizophrenic thinking is characterized by a cognitive style that has been variously called overinclusive, allusive, loose, or characterized by the term 'mental slippage,' writes Eysenck, a noted researcher in the field. ... For a writer, such looseness is an amazing asset." 

Perry also notes that Carl Jung, "contrasting James Joyce to his schizophrenic daughter Lucia, said that they 'were like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.' Lucia made random uncontrolled and uncontrollable associations, while Joyce, though he pushed language to its limits, knew on some level exactly what he was doing." 

Achieving flow may present a greater challenge for gifted individuals, who often experience high levels of excitability and intensity. 

In describing the process of awareness training at her Rocamora School in Los Angeles, director Mary Rocamora notes that it is possible to break old and disruptive modes that trap us in routines of emotions and patterns of beliefs: "Eventually [those patterns] drop out of experience altogether, as presence is more easily moved toward and sustained." 

She says awareness work is an orientation to living and "seeing where the flow is going, so that we're not working at cross-purposes with anything that's moving organically on its own." 

And that state of awareness is also where we are most creatively alive. 



[1] from "He's Going With Flow", LA Times, May 24, 1998

[2] Mensa Research Journal

[3] interview: Jennifer Lehman  film acting teacher and consultant.

[4] interview: Susan K. Perry, PhD

Books :  

Diane Ackerman.  Deep Play 

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly:  

  Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

  Finding Flow : The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life

  Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure 

Hans Eysenck. Genius : The Natural History of Creativity

W. Timothy Gallwey   The Inner Game of Music

Susan K. Perry, PhD  Writing in Flow : Keys to Enhanced Creativity
multiple interviews with writers; discussions of techniques writers use to make flow happen etc.

Mary Rocamora.  The Personal Journey Workbook

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   T This is a publication of Talent Development Resources