Finding IT: Creativity and the Flow State

drichard's picture
"All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows its not the tune that counts but IT." -from On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1)

Jack Kerouac wrote his infamous novel On the Road over the course of three weeks in April 1951. A chronicle of his seven-year journey across the United States, On the Road captures the energy of his age in textured, rhythmic prose. His most compelling passages center around the jazz he witnessed in the sweat-soaked nightclubs of New Orleans and the smoke-filled cellars of Harlem. Kerouac was fascinated by the distinct ability of jazz musicians to spontaneously unite a room of people through improvisation. In a telepathic trance the trumpeters and tambourine men seemed to synchronize their brainwaves, resulting in Kerouac's resounding "IT." The question now for neuroscience is what is "IT"? How is "IT" achieved? And what is "IT's" power to unite? In the following paragraphs I seek to synthesize neurological research on creativity and the "flow state" theory in order to better understand the creative mind at work and its ability to attain "IT."
Creativity is one of the pillars of the human experience. A product of evolution, it has allowed us to solve simple and complex problems alike in order to ensure our survival. With the advent of relative evolutionary stability came the application of our creativity to the arts and sciences. Ever since we became aware of our ability to creatively think we have been curious about it. The development of cognitive neuroscience has thus led to intense study of the brain's creative mechanism. So as to frame my discussion of the mechanism I offer a working definition of creativity: "creativity" refers to an act of combination that calls upon memory and other neural circuits to generate (spontaneously or deliberately) something that is both novel and appropriate (2). For the purpose of this paper I am primarily concerned with the spontaneous generation of creative products (as observed by Kerouac in the choruses of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker), though this is not to say that the spontaneous mode of creative thinking is of more importance than its deliberate counterpart.
Neuroimaging techniques have allowed scientists to identify the parts of the brain activated during the creative process. Studies show that, though the creative act engages many parts of the brain, it is primarily localized in the prefrontal cortex (2). That the prefrontal cortex is intimately involved with the limbic system and our capacity for rational thought (two key elements of the creative process) provides theoretical evidence for this finding (2). During a bought of spontaneous creative thinking the attentional system of the cortex is disabled, allowing for an unfiltered stream of unconsciousness to flood the working memory (2). This stream is free of the shackles of social standards and scientific "law," resulting in an infinite number of proposed solutions to a confronted problem (for example, the bassist is able to choose one of myriad polyrhythms in response to the drummer of the jazz ensemble switching time signatures). Articulated eloquently by jazz giant Miles Davis: "When you're creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain't the limit" (4). This is precisely what differentiates the spontaneous mode of creativity from the deliberate mode. "While the deliberate mode allows the thinker to direct cerebral capacities to a particular problem, it has the disadvantage of limiting the solution space" (2). But how does this individual neural process translate into the communal experience of freedom of expression? When does the simple act of problem solving cross over into the spiritual? We still have not resolved the issue of the achievement of Kerouac's "IT." Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers a potential solution in his book Flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an influential psychologist currently working at the University of Chicago. In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he proposes a theory to explain the Zen-like experience commonly referred to as "being in the zone." Csikszentmihalyi calls this the experience of "being in the flow state." The constituents of the flow state include a challenging activity that requires skills, the merging of action and awareness, the presence of clear goals and feedback, concentration on the task at hand, the perception of total control, the loss of self-consciousness, and the transformation of time (3). During a period of flow one feels an immense amount of satisfaction as their entire being becomes immersed in a certain task. In Kerouac's terms, the flow state would be the point at which the saxophonist "gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops (1)." But why does the audience look up? What do they know? In order to satisfy the question of the communal experience of "IT" one further step of examination is necessary.
Analysis of the functions of the prefrontal cortex and the phenomena of creativity and the flow state make it clear that the events are intimately tied. We have established that creativity is largely a function of the prefrontal cortex; we have yet to note, however, that the prefrontal cortex is also responsible for the cognitive functions of planning, memory, temporal integration, and sustained and directed attention (2), precisely the functions affected during experiences of the flow state (3). It is apparent that the flow state has the potential to be a period of great creative productivity as each phenomena share a set of neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex.
At this point we are able to address the communal experience of flow that turned Jack Kerouac into a raving madman in New Orleans. I propose that jazz musicians and other exploratory artists are able to appeal to audience members and achieve solidarity because of the common physiology and objective shared by every human brain. Not only do our neural pathways appear and function the same way, they are also looking for the same thing: ultimate truth. When Kerouac's saxophonist begins "to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows its not the tune that counts but IT (1)," he is evoking a sense of ultimate truth. It is not his song that counts, but what the song points to: common humanity. Though the audience may not be consciously aware of their perception of this common humanity, this fundamental truth, it is the reason they experience the rhapsody in unison with the players on the bandstand. Put into scientific terms, "While the emotional nature of the insight certifies its importance, the unintentional nature of the insight adds to the conviction that such experiences must contain universal truth" (2). Spectators are drawn in by the display of raw emotion while they are captivated by the allusion to something greater than themselves. I am of the opinion that all good art points to this common humanity and that art can be judged on the basis of how successfully it neurologically engages other humans.
The issue of consciousness during flow is of particular interest. Jazz musicians and other practitioners of flow typically report the loss of self-consciousness upon entering the flow state; they lose themselves in the music. In his discussion of the prefrontal cortex Arne Dietrich notes, "our immediate conscious experience of the here and now is made possible by the sustained buffering of information in working memory" (2). In light of this statement the flow state could be described as a period of spontaneous creativity during which the buffer of working memory responsible for consciousness dissolves, allowing for a rapid and uninhibited dialogue between sensory inputs and nervous system outputs. Memories and schemas collide with sounds and sights and smells at alarming rates like atoms being brought to boil, resulting in totally new combinations of concepts and ideas. These novelties are brought to the consciousness of all as they are blown out the face of a trombone, as they are struck on the skin of a snare. The workings of the creative brain, in this way, mirror the chaotic and often fantastic ways of nature and evidence the notion that the fabric of human experience is tightly interwoven.
This discussion of consciousness relates directly to the notion of the bipartite brain. Though unconscious, spontaneous improvisation might be the true art of jazz, its practice is rooted in conscious efforts to edify the prefrontal cortex, its mechanisms of attention, and the stock memories at its disposal. In the words of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum, "You have to practice improvisation, let no one kid you about it!" (4). Art Tatum spent years rehearsing standards and committing scales to memory before he set out to improvise on his own. It is this acquisition of skills in one's cognitive unconscious that allows one to enter the flow state and be successful. Jazz sessions, for this reason, can be thought of as the epitomic flow states as they require both a high level of consciously attained skill and the complete loss of consciousness as the act unfolds. The objective, according to master saxophonist Charlie Parker, is to "master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that shit and just play" (4).
As per usual, these neurobiological findings have the potential for imperative philosophical profundity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that periods of flow are "optimal experiences" in which we come to know the greatest satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. If we can find ways to consistently tap into our capacity for flow then we can redefine how we live our lives; we can turn "optimal experiences" into an "optimal existence." In Csikszentmihalyi's own words, "When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve, because... even the most boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable" (3). In addition to this enhanced quality of life, one would also be more productive both in the workplace and during their free time.
In conclusion, creativity and the flow state appear to be inherently connected; one might even argue that they are different names for the same thing. What is sure is that both phenomena serve as windows into the quintessence of the human experience. Out of a state of chaotic orchestration the brain produces the most fantastic, novel ideas, each redefining how we see the world. Above all, the value of the studies of creativity and the flow state, and of all neurological studies, lies in the potential of each to point to our humanity and remind us we are all connected. Indeed, the value of each of these studies lies in the potential of each to assist humanity in its quest for "IT."

Works Cited
1. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

2. Dietrich, Arne. "The cognitive neuroscience of creativity." Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 11 (2004): 1-16.

3. Mihaly., Csikszentmihalyi,. Flow the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

4. "Photo Matt Jazz Quotes." Matt Mullenweg aka Photo Matt on WordPress, Web, Jazz, Life, and Photography. 14 May 2009 <>.

Items of Interest
This is what the flow state looks like. This is "IT."


Paul Grobstein's picture

IT, ivy, and the brain

Puts me in mind of what I once called "interconnected vastness" or "ivy" for short.  Glad to have the incentive to think more about that in relation to the bipartite brain.  A few quick reactions ...

"require both a high level of consciously attained skill and the complete loss of consciousness as the act unfolds" makes a lot of sense but

"it is primarily localized in the prefrontal cortex" seems to me to have a problem if one equates neocortex with "consciousness." 

Perhaps prefrontal cortex "activation" as observed with imaging techniques actually corresponds to an enhanced inhibitory drive on it?

"Not only do our neural pathways appear and function the same way, they are also looking for the same thing: ultimate truth". 

Maybe what they/we are actually looking for is "ivy"?  And we use the term "ultimate truth" then not for something beyond ourselves but rather for a particular brain state within ourselves?  One that depends not only on ourselves but on our interactions with other people?  Perhaps it is a state of satisfying exchange between the cognitive unconscious of several different people, and it is that that is both prepared for by conscious action and depends on conscious inactivation to be fully achieved?  A state in which exchanges among the unconsciouses are sufficiently satisfying to all so that there is nothing to alert/activate conscious processes?  

"windows into the quintessence of the human experience". 

I suspect the human experience is actually as much one of conflict as it is of flow/ivy, and that without the conflict one wouldn't have the resources to achieve flow/ivy.  Yep, its appealing/worth working toward, but suspect its necessarily and inevitably a sometime thing.  

David Feingold's picture

A brain state within ourselves

By Jove, Professor Grobstein, I think you've got it:

"And we use the term 'ultimate truth' then not for something beyond ourselves but rather for a particular brain state within ourselves..."

Flow is like a jet airplane rising above the clouds to reach the crystal blue clarity of the skies--crystal blue clarity of the skies that was always there. With flow, you dive through clouds of thought to reach the crystal blue clarity of transcended consciousness--clarity of transcended consciousness that was always there. Music, art, cooking, gardening, coming up with mathematical formulas, mopping the floor, mirroring the smiles of an infant, etc., allow us to "take flight" to experience the crystal clarity of that brain state within us.

Case in point. I have artwork on the Serendip website that gives expression to my having bipolar disorder. The artwork is rather visceral, likely putting some people off and possibly having others wonder if my medication is working. L.O.L. Why would anyone want to do artwork like that? The answer is, because it's not the artwork, it's the flow experience behind doing the artwork. When one views my images, they are not just experiencing me communicating my experience of bipolar disorder, they are "viewing the experience" of me having reached the state of flow, when doing my artwork about my experience with bipolar disorder. I remember as a child experiencing flow when looking endlessly at Salvador Dali artwork. I was "viewing the experience" of Salvador Dali's flow experience!

Herein lies the profundity of Professor Grobstein's view of "ivy". When my (or anyone's) artwork 'clicks' with some people, even despite its visceral content, we mutually take flight and reach flow through the "windows into the quintessence of the human experience".

Susan K. Perry's picture

A "sometime thing" or a way of life?

In my own studies of writing in flow (based on Csikszentmihalyi's own model), I found that many successful and award-winning novelists and poets enter a flow state, when they are fully engaged and time seems to stop (or at least feel greatly altered), quite often, if not regularly. I didn't explore the brain studies in any depth but focused on the experience of these writers who'd been writing for many years.

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