Flow (Accessing Super-Creativity): Making Connections

Neurons

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow was enthusiastically taken up by musicians, sportsmen, businesswomen, creative types, indeed by anyone interested in learning, training and high-level performance. It’s that wonderful feeling when one is ‘in the zone’, simultaneously relaxed and concentrated, where one’s actions proceed effortlessly from a deep understanding of the situation. Whatever your particular application (arts, sports, business, creativity) Flow is the optimal state for efficient learning, effective training, and maximising one’s performance.

As part of my research (read more here) for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE, read more here), I’m investigating Flow in the context of various related disciplines. My approach is phenomenological, experiential, based on my personal experience and on observations reported to me by colleagues, teachers and students from their own individual experiences. My aim is to reach a deeper understanding of how Flow works on a pragmatic level, so that I can offer practical hints to anyone who wants to access Flow in their own activities.

In this Introduction, I will summarise the classic description of Flow according to Csikszentmihalyi, and set out various connections which I’ll explore one-by-one and in greater depth in later posts: Griffin’s Dream Theory, Ericksonian Hypnosis, Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice, Neuroplasticity & Myelination, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Feldenkrais Method, Positive Psychology, Historically Informed Performance.

Also in this post, I’ll identify one crucial element of Flow which has not so far received the attention it deserves. I’ll connect this to the background theory, and suggest why this might be the missing link between Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and the high-level, elite performance skills that so many coaches and performers are searching for.   

Chain Missing Link Question

 

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI’S FLOW

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Steps towards enhancing the quality of life (New York 1990, on Google Books here), Csikszentmihalyi identifies various elements that characterise Flow. If you experience several of these (not necessarily all of them), you are probably experiencing Flow. These elements can be present in any activity – sport, music, creative writing, business negotiations, public speaking etc.

  • Challenge

The activity is challenging, but not impossible. You are pushing the limit of your skills, but you are nevertheless confident in your abilities.

Csikszentmihalyi developed and gradually refined a diagram relating challenge and skill, with the flow-zone in the area of high-challenge, high-skill.

Flow diagram transit of Venus

 

  • Merging of Awareness & Action

Your intense awareness of crucial aspects of the activity leads immediately and effortlessly  to your actions, perhaps without any intervening conscious decision-process. You notice the situation, and your actions flow from that awareness.

  • Absorbtion

Your awareness is so intense that you are fully absorbed in the activity. Incoming information entirely fills the “bandwidth” of your attention.

  • Goals / feedback

The activity has clear goals, and you receive clear feedback on your progress towards those goals.

  • Concentration

You are fully concentrated so that nothing distracts you from the activity. Your focus does not shift here and there. Your concentration does not flicker off and on again. Potential distractions (e.g. background noises) do not disturb your focus and concentration.

This maintaining of a narrow focus is subtly different from the intensity of concentration described above as Absorbtion.

  • Control

You have a sufficient sense of control. As with Challenge, the optimal level of control presumably balances the thrill of unpredictability against the stability of control.

  • Lack of self-consciousness

Whilst the activity is in process, you are not aware of yourself, you are not concerned with how others see you, you are fully immersed in the activity itself. Typically, there is a strong feeling of pleasure after the activity is completed.

Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of a mountain climber, for whom the activity itself is physically demanding and requires total concentration. When the climber reaches the summit, only then do the feelings of elation kick in.

  • Time Distortion

You may not be aware of the passage of time, whilst you continue the activity in Flow. Only afterwards do you notice how late it is, that you might be hungry, thirsty, or need sleep.

As the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun! I’ll return to this question of Time Distortion, which I consider to be highly significant.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

 

The Autotelic Personality

Csikszentmihalyi considers that having an Autotelic Personality makes it easier for one to enter Flow. Autotelic people (from the Greek words for Self and Purpose) are self-motivated, they can find a sense of purpose in doing an activity for it’s own sake. Here are Csikszentmihalyi’s characteristics of Autotelics, which he derives from the corresponding elements of Flow:

  • Taking charge of your own destiny

You believe that what you are doing makes a difference.

  • Outward focus

You are focussed on your activities, on the outside world, not introspecting about your own situation

  • Goal setting

You set goals and monitor your progress towards them.

  • Absorbed

You get absorbed by the activities you undertake

  • Ability to concentrate

You can maintain a sharp focus over time, without being distracted

  • Enjoyment

You enjoy the immediate experience of the activity at hand.

I would add these two further characteristics, corresponding to Challenge and Merging of Awareness & Action

  • Have a go!

You enjoy taking on (new) challenges

  • Go for it!

You don’t procrastinate.

 

Flow notes

JOE GRIFFIN’S THEORY OF DREAMS

My investigation into Learning, Training and Performance rests on the theoretical foundation of Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams and the REM state. In his later writings, together with Ivan Tyrrell, Griffin explores wide and deep implications of his theory, particularly in relation to mental health and creativity. (More here.)

The Expectation-Fulfilment Theory of Dreams offers a psychological, biological and evolutionary explanation that is consistent with neuroscientific data and has already led to measurable clinical success. It amounts to a new Organising Idea, a simple fundamental concept that underpins many observed complexities. In essence, Griffin claims that:
  •  Dreams are associated with the Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) state during sleep

 

  • The biological function of Dreams is to resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative), generated whilst awake

 

  • Dreams re-present unfulfilled expectations in Metaphors, so that they can be resolved by pattern-matching to recalled memories.

 

  • Some 40,000 years ago, humans evolved the ability to access the REM-state whilst awake: this facilitated learning, language, tool-making and higher culture.

Griffin’s metaphor for the REM-state is the Theatre of Dreams.

Waking access to the REM-state allows us to day-dream, to relive the past, to envision the future, to watch a play in the Theatre of Dreams.

In hypnosis, the hypnotist “hijacks” the theatre machinery, changing the scenery, producing special effects, sending on various characters, directing a play for you to watch (even to act in) within the Theatre of Dreams.

The Origin of Dreams

ERICKSONIAN HYPNOSIS

Milton H. Erickson is widely recognised as the founder of modern hypnotherapy. In contrast to the myth that hypnotism is ‘magic’; in contrast to the traditional view of the hypnotist as an authority figure who imposes his will on his client; in contrast to the cliche of watching as the hypnotist swings a pocket-watch and counts down from 10 to 1 whilst instructing you to sleep; in contrast to the Freudian concept of the unconscious as a dark cavern of negativity; in contrast to the caricature of the all-knowing therapist and the helpless client, the Milton method assumes:

  • Trance is a natural state that we all experience several times each day

 

  •  The hypnotist creates conditions in which the client can feel permitted and able to enter trance.

 

  • Different people enter trance in different ways and have different experiences within trance.

 

  • The unconscious mind can be a powerful and positive resource.

 

  • The client can be helped to access solutions from within their own unconscious resources.

 

One aspect of Ericksonian Hypnosis is that therapists don’t feel the need to rush through their Pre-Talk and Induction, in order to get the client into trance and ‘start doing something useful’. Rather, the Pre-Talk is seen as an essential and highly significant part of the therapeutic intervention, and there may be no formal Induction as such.

In the Ericksonian view, hypnosis is at work in many everyday situations, including conventional (supposedly non-hypnotic) talking therapies, and teaching/learning. I would also add the performer/audience interaction to this list.

Erickson made a particular study of Time Distortion effects in Hypnosis, where the client’s subjective experience of time, under trance, was either much slower, or much faster, than real time. I will return to this subject, which I consider highly significant for Flow.

 

Erickson

Erickson at work. Notice the characteristic SOLER posture: S = Sit down with your client; O = Open, friendly posture; L = Lean forwards, be attentive; E = make Eye contact; R = Relax.

 

Accept & Utilise

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Erickson’s approach was his response to Client Resistance. Rather than struggling to overcome resistance or to ‘correct’ the client’s behaviour, his solution was to accept whatever the client presented, and utilise even the most difficult behaviour as part of the therapy. For example, when treating a delusional client who believed that he was Jesus Christ, Erickson’s approach was not to attack the delusion, but to accept it. “I understand that you have a background in carpentry, would you like to build some bookshelves for me?”. The occupational therapy of woodworking became a crucial component of a successful treatment.

There are many stories from Erickson’s cases, which have inspired succeeding generations of hypnotherapists. My favourite is one particularly difficult case, where Erickson himself was unable to find a successful angle from which to direct his therapeutic intervention. Finally, he put the client into trance, and progressed him into the future, to a time when his problem had been successfully treated. “How was it done?” Erickson asked. Having obtained the answer (under hypnosis, direct from the client’s unconscious), Erickson gave the instruction (by hypnotic suggestion of amnesia) for the client to forget about this exchange, and brought the client back to the present, and out of trance. He then began a successful line of treatment, from the angle that the client himself had described in trance.

For an easy-to-read practical introduction to Ericksonian Hypnosis, I recommend Bill O’Hanlon Guide to Tranceland (2009). Richard Nongard Speak Ericksonian (2014) draws on his rich experience as a stage and speed hypnotist, clinical therapist and religious minister, and introduces techniques of NLP (see below). Michael Yapko Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis (2012) is a thorough guide to essential theory and current practice, an excellently compiled textbook for serious students. Nash & Barnier (editors) The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis is for researchers.  

 

CPD

 

As part of my investigations, I have been studying the theory and training in the practice of Hypnosis. I am not qualified as a Hypnotherapist, but I am competent to use Hypnosis as part of my work on Flow, in consensual and informed interactions. This training also gives me a better understanding of how hypnosis is at work in many everyday (supposedly non-hypnotic) situations.

 

ALK TRA

ERICSSON’S DELIBERATE PRACTICE

Psychologist Anders Ericsson researches the cognitive structures that underpin high-level training and expert performance. His work shows the importance of sustained, intensely concentrated practice that challenges one’s current skill-levels, deliberately and precisely pushing the envelope, always just outside the comfort zone. As the title of one of his editions – Towards a General Theory of Expertise (Cambridge University Press, 1991) – suggests, although expert skills are specific to a particular domain, the processes underlying the acquisition of those skills are common across a wide range of applications: music, sports, chess, business negotiations etc.

Ericsson’s work has led to a reassessment of the nature of Talent. The modern consensus places much less emphasis on ‘natural giftedness’, even on helpful genetic traits (runners born with long limbs), recognising the importance of environmental factors (in particular, access to training opportunities) and the decisive factor of many, many hours of Deliberate Practice.

These ideas have been popularised and extended in a number of books linking elite performance in sports to effective training regimes on the Ericsson model: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) presents the 10,000 rule (i.e. the need for about 10 years dedicated training to reach elite levels of performance); Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (2008) looks at the acquisition of high-level skills in two apparently unrelated areas, chess and martial arts; Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (2009) examines a biological mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of skills training; Matthew Syad’s Bounce (2011) discounts genetic factors, even useful physical attributes, in favour of Deliberate Practice.

Johan Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0 (2007) follows a similar line to Waitzkin in advocating a narrow focus during training – what Waitzkin calls ‘making smaller circles’. Harmenberg considers performance under intense stress, the ‘Olympic hit’: in such circumstances, even highly trained performers are sometimes unable to access their elite skills. Waitzkin also considers high-stress performance, and draws attention to Time Distortion – ‘slowing down time’ within a particular state of consciousness that he calls ‘the soft zone’.  I’ll return to these ideas below and in later posts.

NEUROPLASTICITY

My focus is phenomenological and practical – what is the experience of Flow, and how can we access it? Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and illuminating to examine the findings of Neuroscientists, as they try to understand the biological processes that support the expert skills we wish to learn, train and perform. The metaphor of treating your brain as you would a muscle – use it well, train it deliberately, and it will strengthen and grow – is apt.

Deliberate Practice (targeting precise skill elements, pushing the envelope) carried out in a state of Flow (optimal transfer of information between conscious and unconscious mind) builds new pathways, activates neural networks inside the brain. Think of this as installing new software into your computer.

After a couple of days of Deliberate Practice, your brain starts to grow, physically. You are growing new hardware, bolted-on so as to increase your capacity for the specific skills you are training. The results will show in two to three weeks.

On a similar time-scale (2 or 3 days for activation, 2 or 3 weeks for measurable results), training switches on or off certain genes, optimising your inherited DNA according to the demands your training makes. (This is one reason why identical twins, who share the same DNA, show differences in genetic activity: genes are switched on or off according to the experiences you have.)

Neurons

MYELINATION

If neurons are like wires, transmitting and processing signals through the brain, you can connect them up better, and even add new circuits, with Deliberate Practice. Practising a particular skill under challenging conditions (pushing the envelope) also wraps layers of Myelin around the particular neurons that are working hardest. Myelin is like the insulation around a wire, it stops the charge leaking out and makes transmission more efficient. The more Deliberate Practice you do, the more Myelin you can wrap. You get better, sharper, faster.

And of course, to stay in Flow, as you continue to train, you must continually raise the bar, up the Challenge. As you continue to push the envelope, you assemble more neurons, connect up more neuro-circuits, and wrap them all in Myelin. The skill becomes effortless, awareness and action merge, and you might well start to have some serious fun!

 

Myelin

 

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

Csikszentmihlayi’s concept Flow is part of a general trend to move away from researching only pathological conditions, mental illness, psychological trauma, and investigate well-being, happiness, positive psychology. Performance Studies can also benefit from a positive approach, with Solution Oriented interventions, learning to acquire confidence and access Flow,  rather than wallowing in the pathology of Performance Anxiety.

Nevertheless, musicians and sportsmen know all too well the phenomenon of ‘choking’. Just when it matters the most, the stress of the moment is too much, and one loses access to all those hard-won elite skills. In bad cases, one loses even basic competence, and reverts to crude bungling. This is what happened to the Brazil football team in the last World Cup: after they had Flowed through all the heats, in the semi-final they failed to Flow, and were not so much beaten as annihilated by Germany, 7-1. Brazil choked.

 

Brazil world cup defeat

 

How can we learn to use the stress of a highly significant moment as a spur towards our finest, most Flowing performance, rather than being knocked out of Flow into hopeless incompetence? I’ll explore some ideas in future posts.

NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING

NLP takes many ideas from Ericksonian Hypnosis, especially the subtle use of language to influence modes of thought, and distills them into their most concentrated form. Although NLP has become associated with covert hypnotism and unfair manipulation, its powerful techniques can be used beneficially, for teaching and even for self-improvement.

 

As well as subtleties of language, NLP examines directions of gaze and other outward indications of inner processes. I am interested to explore how this link might be reversed, to use deliberately directed gaze to re-order modes of thought and unconscious processes. Some work has already been done in this area by Feldenkrais practitioners and researchers into Performance Anxiety.

 

FELDENKRAIS METHOD

Moshe Feldenkrais was a martial arts expert and engineer who developed a method for learning and teaching efficient, effortless use of the body. Although its aim is similar to that of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method teaches by different means. An ‘Awareness Through Movement’ class invites participants to notice subtle feedback from the body, as they carry out simple, undemanding movements in a relaxed environment. The use of non-habitual positions (e.g. crossing your legs with the other leg on top), or the introduction of a twist into a movement (direct your eyes to the right, turn your head to the left) produces a kind of alienation effect, sharpening one’s proprioception.

Classes include frequent moments of rest, not because the exercises are physically demanding (on the contrary, teachers repeatedly warn not to use too much effort), but in order to let the unconscious and conscious mind exchange and assimilate information. Many elements of Feldenkrais teaching look very familiar to the Ericksonian Hypnotist.

The results of Feldenkrais teaching can be amazing. The Method manages to link up conscious/unconscious learning, mind and body. A good session engages the participants in Flow, and the body Flows beautifully afterwards.

Feldenkrais Method

AREAS OF EXPERTISE

Csikszentmihalyi, Milton Erickson and Anders Ericsson all considered that their findings were valid across a wide-range of cases – music, arts, sports, business, any creative and challenging activity.

My experiential approach inevitably draws on my personal experience as an elite musician and teacher (part of my work as a Historical Informed Performer has included acquiring and teaching the related, but distinct techniques for different types of historical harp, Italian, Irish, Spanish, French etc, and the study of such related skills as directing, continuo, and baroque gesture); as a professionally qualified sailor (sailing is  favourite example of Csikszentmihalyi’s); as a novice fencer (modern epée and historical rapier) and as a keen student of the Feldenkrais Method.

I’m also consulting colleagues, teachers and students in each of these disciplines.

I hypothesise that certain aspects of Historically Informed Performance of music may be particularly suited for facilitating access into Flow.

QUESTIONS OF TIME 

Csikszentmihalyi considers Flow on the time-scale of an entire life-time’s search for happiness. But the Flow many of us are looking for is a transitory state, a temporary heightened consciousness that allows us to perform at our very best, just when it matters most.

Csikszentmihalyi characterises the Time Distortion of Flow as the perception that one has worked only for a short period, whilst in the real world, a long time has passed. This is a useful Time Distortion for training.

But in performance, we are looking for the other type of Time Distortion. The tennis ball comes flying over the net, but for the skilled player time seems to slow down: there is plenty of time to assess the incoming ball, position one’s body and the tennis racquet, and execute a perfect return that will severely challenge one’s opponent. In the Time Distortion of Performance, subjective time seems to slow down so that Awareness and Action can merge, effortlessly.

Erickson wrote about various Time Distortion effects under hypnosis, and about how this relates to the phenomenon of people responding to emergencies with cool, effective action: such people report a Time Distortion of Performance in which subjective time seems to slow down. Waitzkin links ‘slowing down time’ to the extreme stress of what Harmenberg calls ‘Olympic hits’, the most crucial, decisive moments.

swinging watch

 

TWO KINDS OF FLOW

 

Having proposed many connections, I’d like to conclude this introduction by suggesting a separation. I consider that there are actually two kinds of Flow, crucially distinguished by two types of Time Distortion. In Flow-T (ideal for training), the subjective impression is that a short time passed, whereas in the real world many hours went by. In Flow-P (ideal for performance), the subjective impression is that time slows down, so that one can effortlessly observe the situation and merge that awareness into action at elite skill-levels.

The two types are distinct but related. I hypothesise that long-term use of Flow-T can prepare the way for short-term access to Flow-P.

 

In the fluid mechanical phenomenon known as a Hydraulic Jump, a narrow zone of intense Flow contrasts with an extended region with different Flow characteristics.

In the fluid-mechanical phenomenon known as a Hydraulic Jump, a narrow zone of intense Flow contrasts with an extended region with slower Flow characteristics.

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Flow connections

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Flow 2014 – The Cambridge Talks

Cambridge bridge of sighs

Csikszentmihalyi defined Flow, being ‘in the zone’, that ‘Zen feeling’, you’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated, quietly confident, feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge in front of you. [Read ALK’s introduction to Flow, Accessing Super-Creativity: May the Flow be with you!  here.]

This posting summarises and comments on papers and discussions related to Flow at the recent CMPCP conference at Cambridge University. [More about the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice here.]

SELF-REGULATED PRACTICE PROCEDURES AND FLOW STATES

Marcus Araújó, who investigates Performance Studies and Psychology of Music & Education at the Department of Communication and Art at the University of Aveiro, is interested in Flow, the cognitive processes underlying performance and practice of music, musical expertise, and expert musicians’ preparation for performance.

Abstract

The aim of his study is to explore self-regulatory practice behaviours and Flow in highly-skilled musicians. A sample of 212 musicians answered a developed questionnaire about practice behaviours and Flow state. Results show that the skilled musicians were highly self-regulated. Most of the Flow characteristics were experienced whilst practising, but ‘action-awareness merging’ and ‘sense of control’ were less reported. Self-regulated behaviours, ‘metacognitive awareness’ and ‘self-efficacy’ were correlated with Flow dimensions, suggesting that these may contribute to the Flow experience whilst practising. ‘Goal setting’ negatively correlated with the ‘action-awareness merging’ dimension of Flow. No positive associations were found between the ‘action-awareness merging’ dimension and any or the self-regulated behaviours.

ALK summary 

Marcus is looking at the relationship between Flow and efficient practising. In particular, he has devised a questionnaire to measure various aspects of musicians’ experience. He has taken well-agreed indicators of Flow (from Csikszentmihalyi  and others):

  • a good balance between challenge/skills
  • clear goals
  • clear feedback
  • intense concentration
  • loss of self-consciousness
  • merging of action and awareness
  • sense of control and agency
  • losing track of the passing of time
  • a sense of deep satisfaction

Flow improves creativity and combats performance anxiety. But there is a lack of research on positive experiences whilst practising. This is why Marcus is looking at positive experiences, and at experiences during practising (as opposed to performance).

The experience of the ‘Merging of action and awareness’ is the Flow-indicator that is most beneficial for musicians.

Self-regulation and the optimal use of one’s own personal resources is the key to finding Flow and practising efficiently.

Marcus’ results show a negative correlation between Practice Organisation and Merging. Practice Organisation may inhibit Flow.

ALK comments

Marcus’ advance title was more ambitious “Entering into Flow-state through self-regulated behaviour: an explanatory study”. This is of course what we are all looking for, reliable ways to enter Flow  that we can use for ourselves, that don’t require the presence of a teacher. I can understand that with his revised title, Marcus wanted to avoid claiming more than he could deliver, but his study is already on a good path towards identifying possible gateways into Flow. And he has also noticed along the way some potential blocks to be avoided.  

The particular importance of Marcus’ work is that he is measuring experience. It is very useful to have data on, as well as descriptions of, Flow. Of course, there are limitations inherent in his methodology. Participants are reporting their own experiences, after the practice-session is over. There might perhaps be a tendency for self-reporting to be over-optimistic, but the strength of Marcus’ questionnaire is that it asks about many different aspects of experience. We don’t have to make any judgement about how successful or not these musicians were at entering Flow, rather (as Marcus has done) we can examine correlations between those different elements.

There might well be differences between how a practice-session feels whilst it is going on, and how one feels about it just afterwards – obviously, questionnaires cannot give real-time data on the on-going experience. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi has already shown that the satisfaction associated with Flow is not felt during the process (which may require hard work,    Csikszentmihalyi  gives the example of rock-climbers making a difficult ascent), but afterwards, when one looks back on the completed task. And it seems to me that, since Flow is associated with an absence of self-consciousness, real-time testing carries a strong risk of Observer Effect (the process of measuring will change the activity that is being measured), even of disrupting Flow entirely. It is very difficult to devise real-time testing that would be ‘invisible’ to the participant.

Marcus is measuring subjective experience. This positions him somewhere in-between those of us who are investigating experience qualitatively (i.e. phenomenology) , and the ‘hard science’ approach of measuring objective variables. Such an in-between position might be particularly advantageous for establishing connections between subjective experience and more objective measurements from neuroscience and other disciplines.

Questionnaires are low-tech, low-budget and easy to administer. Collating the data is also straightforward. These are all significant advantages.

For all these reasons, I think Marcus’ approach has much to commend it. Other studies are producing descriptive material, but lack measured data. It would be very useful if other researchers could take up Marcus’ questionnaire and apply it to their own studies, so that large data-sets could be built up for comparative studies and meta-analysis.

From his data, Marcus pulls out some interesting ideas. I agree that the Merging of Action and Awareness is a key benefit of being in Flow, not only for musicians but also for sportsmen. It’s not the only such benefit, and in a future posting I will argue that it is not the most important one for elite performance. However, Marcus is looking at practising, and my next post will present my hypothesis that performance-Flow and practice-Flow are significantly different.

Marcus observed that goal-setting and practice organisation correlated negatively with Flow.  Can this be explained as conscious, Left-Brain processes interfering with subconscious Right-Brain Flow?  Or does referring back (during the practice session) to goals and practice-plans (established before the session started) disrupt the focus on the present moment, the Mindfulness that is needed for Flow? These are important questions, because Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice suggests that conscious organisation of practice-sessions is highly beneficial. How can we organise practice efficiently without disrupting Flow?

My own investigation examines Flow within the Griffin model of the REM-state, and in connection with Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice and Ericksonian Hypnosis. [Read more here] Learning (in lessons or in self-regulated practising) is regarded as a Post-Hypnotic process, guided by Suggestions which can come from the teacher or from one’s own self-regulation. In a future posting, I’ll discuss how established knowledge from Hypnosis might contribute to our understanding of gateways into Flow and of how to manage blocks that prevent or disrupt Flow. Marcus observes that Self-Regulation is a key factor: I will propose that Self-Hypnosis could be a highly effective gateway into Flow.

 

Cambridge river flowing

 THE ABILITY OF REAL-TIME NAVIGATION IN THE MUSICAL FLOW: THEORY AND PEDAGOGY

László Stachó is a musicologist, psychologist and musician working as senior lecturer at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest ad at the University of Szeged. He is a CMPCP Visiting Fellow. His research focuses on Bartok analysis, 20th-century performance practice, emotional communication in musical performance and enhancement of attention skills involved in music performance.

Abstract

Laszlo argues that a true sign of musical giftedness is the ability to uncover meanings from musical materials – grounded in feelings – and to position into them in the act of performing with full concentration. Full concentration is fostered through the ability to navigate cognitively in the musical Flow, i.e. the ability to ‘be’ in  (i.e. to position into) the future, in the past and in the present – phenomenologically very often at the same moment.

In a forthcoming book, he presents the outline of a new, detailed pedagogical methodology for enhancing in musicians (regardless of their instrument and including singers) the ability of real-time navigating in the musical Flow, including the sub-abilities to imagine the upcoming structural units (i.e. to estimate by feeling their durations through forming a mental image of them), to form a clear mental image of the past musical units to which the upcoming ones are to be measured, and to feel deeply the present moment.

ALK summary 

Laszlo contrasted two viewpoints: technical, logical, looking for the end-result and content-centred, emotional,  focussed on the on-going process. In Music, these viewpoints can be contrasted as  Mathesis (i.e. science/learning/mathematics) versus Emotions. Today’s conservatoire methodologies are strongly rooted in 19th-century attitudes to technique. However, Emotion and Mathesis need not be mutually exclusive.

What is missing in theories of musical ability is the consideration of Affekt, and Time. What is missing in pedagogy is teaching how or what to feel, teaching how music happens in real time (as opposed to detached analysis).

Laszlo showed videos of master-classes with elite performer-teachers. Teaching how to play Chopin in 1961, Alfred Cortot said that the performers interpretation “should be transposed to the plan of a kind of intimate reverie”. “You need to dream the piece, not play”. Flow is compared to dreaming.  In another master-class, Maria Peres said “We have to believe that miracles can happen, and then they happen more and more often”.

Lazlo argues that imagery is strongly connected to feeling. Mindfulness is also important: Laszlo sees it as a short-term phenomenon, linked to particularly significant musical moments.

Laszlo drew attention to the performer-teacher’s Gaze. A certain characteristic direction and focus of the eyes reveals the cognitive process of reflection.

Another video showed high-tech analysis of Gaze, contrasting two footballers, an elite international (Ronaldo, popularly dubbed “the phenomenon”, and considered by experts and fans to be one of the greatest football players of all time) and a competent amateur. Analysis showed Ronaldo’s very precise direction of his eyes, switching very rapidly and precisely from the ball to opponent’s feet, hips (for predicting the opponent’s next movement), looking for empty space to move into.

For musicians, Laszlo recommends that the mental image should appear in your mind just before you play. This ability is a core ability, appearing in sports as well.

Three skills must be operated simultaneously:

  • Goal setting – being in the future
  • Mindfulness – being in the present
  • Reflection – being in the past

The quality of performance depends on thoughts and feelings in your mind during performance.

Real-time navigation of musical flow requires learning “how to let go”. We learn this by visualisation exercises involving imagined movement (e.g. the trajectory of a thrown ball).

ALK comments

This was a fascinating paper, even if Laszlo’s detailed methodology for entering into Flow was not presented here. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming book (in Hungarian!).

It could be very productive for Laszlo and Marcus to collaborate, since Laszlo has methods for helping musicians enter Flow, and Marcus can measure the experience they have as a result.

Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice argues against the idea of inherited talent. I would re-phrase Laszlo’s opening claim to avoid the notion of “giftedness” and re-prioritise for the audience rather than for the performer: a true sign of musical success is the ability to reveal meanings to the audience. The performer must extract those meanings from musical materials – grounded in feelings – concentrate on them fully during the act of performing.

Laszlo is grappling with a difficult but vital concept as he tries to help performers ‘be in’ the Past, Present and Future, all at once. Perhaps this happens in different ways on different time-scales. As we speak (whether formally or in casual conversation) we are able to link the words we just said, the word we are pronouncing now, and the words that will follow immediately afterwards, in order to create a sentence. Whilst we remain more-or-less aware of our previous sentences, and of the sentence we are saying now, we might or might not have a conscious intention concerning the next sentence. Only an experienced speaker can maintain a coherent structure for an entire speech or lecture, navigating sentence by sentence through the current paragraph, whilst keeping in mind what was said in previous paragraphs and what must be said in subsequent paragraphs. Most people would memorise or write down some kind of plan (an outline, or an entire script) for such a speech. All of these examples are shorter-term than and different from Laszlo’s triad of Goal Setting, Mindfulness, and Reflection.

In Early Music, we can side-step these complications by equating Music with Rhetorical Speech. Past-Present-Future relationships in Music can then be linked to similar progressions through Time in prose or poetry (as I just did, above). I’m strongly convinced that such a Metaphorical understanding of the Past-Present-Future relationships is more useful in the practical situation than abstract theorising. Other Metaphors are also valid (walking, dancing, visual imagery) and indeed Laszlo recommends visual imaging as a practical way to manage Past-Present-Future awareness.

In Early Music, we can think about Passions (affetti) that change across measured Time. Time is measured with a slower beat (Tactus, read more here), affetti change more frequently, than in later music.  This results in a different experience of passions/time, that may be more effective in facilitating Flow. My own research into Enargeia links changing affetti to the emotional power of detailed visual imagery. (More about Enargeia: Visions in Performance here).  Positive imaging is frequently used in sports training and in Hypnotherapy.

Early Musicians are very aware of the bias of Conservatoires towards 19th-century models of performance and pedagogy. One aspect of this bias is the conventional divide between Technique and Interpretation. Historically Informed Performance (HIP) does not accept this binary, but follows earlier models in which technical means are more closely interconnected with musical ends (e.g. keyboard fingering and phrasing). Nevertheless, the most recent research relates HIP to Emotions Studies, so that performance, passion and the audience’s perception are also all interconnected. [Read more about How did it feel? here.]

I suggest that Laszlo is seeing from his pedagogical and Flow-oriented viewpoint similar limitations of the standard Conservatoire approach that we see also from the HIP viewpoint. Certainly most Conservatoires are uncertain how to teach Emotions in music, whether in standard repertoire or in HIP. There are programs that address the problem of performance anxiety, but (as Marcus observed in the context of practising) there is less teaching of precisely how to work positively with emotions.

Laszlo’s plea for a holistic approach that unifies interpretation, technique, and emotions should be heeded. This is the same triad that we see in the historical concept of Music as Musica Mondana (the Music of the Spheres, that Otherworld of magic, myth and mystery that makes a musical interpretation deeply meaningful, somehow spiritual), Musica Humana (the harmonious nature of humanity, unifying body, mind, spirit and emotions) and Musica Instrumentalis (actual music, i.e. techique, whether instrumental or vocal).

My first reaction to the videos of master-classes was to remind myself that a master-class is a very asymmetric situation, in which everything favours the teacher. The student is not only processing new information & new instructions, and changing their whole performance, but they are doing all this in full view of the audience. It is highly likely that the student will not be in Flow. At worst, a master-class can become a vehicle for the teacher to demonstrate their own superiority, their own Flow, at the expense of the student. But these problems for the student in a master-class are advantages for the researcher studying Flow, since we can expect to observe crucial differences between the master in Flow and the student not in Flow.

Cortot’s idea of a performance with Flow as similar to dreaming relates to the theoretical underpinning of my own research into Flow within Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams. (more about Griffin’s theory, such stuff as Dreams are made on: Representing Emotions in Metaphor here).

As soon as I saw Cortot’s face, with the characteristic Gaze to which Laszlo drew attention, I recognised a look that can be found in many historical paintings of musicians. The eyes are directed forwards, upwards and into the remote distance.

Zampieri eyes

This Gaze is associated in Neuro-Linguistic Programming with inner focus (accessing visual memory or invented imagery). In Hypnosis this eye movement is part of a standard test, and is considered to be a reliable sole indicator of a hypnotic trance. In Historical Action, it is associated with the hand gestures for Awe or Wonder: the complete set of Awe/Wonder indicators are seen in many religious paintings (saints receiving visions, calling forth or witnessing a miracle).

 

 

Admiror

In 2013, I made a case-study of John Bulwer’s 17th-century gesture of awe-struck worship for performances of the earliest surviving Spanish Oratorio, which tells the Christmas story of the Shepherds witnessing the appearance of the Angel and worshipping the Christ-child in the Bethlehem stable. Another, highly detailed case-study of medieval Awe by Javier Diaz-Vera of the University of Castille La Mancha was reported at the recent CHE conference on “Languages of Emotion”. I observed a startling strong connection between this Gaze and Flow in a class at Scoil na gCláirseach, the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, in August 2014.

The Feldenkrais Method advises re-setting ones habitual Gaze by placing the head lower, and lifting the eyes. This releases neck vertebrae, with beneficial effects for wellbeing, confidence and voice-production. Similar adjustments are recommended in Alexander Technique.  I am experimenting with Gaze and Self-Hypnosis in my own investigations of Flow.

Gaze and historical performance are related in the study of Enargeia and baroque gesture – you point at what you see, which can be far off in the distance, within your imagined vision of the words you are singing. 17th-century texts frequently evoke distant mountains or the heavens.

Laszlo identifies Gaze as an indicator of Flow. I hypothesise that control of Gaze can facilitate access into Flow. In discussions at Cambridge, some delegates were concerned that such a Gaze might just be created deliberately: I don’t think this is a problem. “Fake it till you make it” applies – imitating the outward appearance of the Flow-Gaze can be expected to produce the genuine Flow-state within.

Peres’ comment “We have to believe that miracles can happen, and then they happen more and more often” can be appreciated in the context of Hypnotic Suggestion for confidence, suggesting that the ‘miracle’ of Flow happens more frequently as one gains confidence in it. The comment also makes sense in the context of Deliberate Practice: the harder you practice, the luckier you get. Flow can lift you to the very peak of your ability, but it cannot create abilities you do not have.

The Gaze analysis of footballers supports a finding in Matthew Syed’s Bounce [here] that elite sports performance is not necessarily associated with fast physical reactions, but rather with very fast subconscious processing of information coming in from visual observation. That visual observation is facilitated by rapid, accurate, but subconsciously directed eye movements. All this fits perfectly within the Griffin model of dreaming and the REM-state (Rapid Eye Movement). Eye Movement is another route into hypnotic trance (see Richard Nongard’s “butterfly” rapid induction here). I hypothesise that REM is not only an indicator of Flow in elite performance, but could be a gateway into such Flow 

Laszlo talks about “letting go” in order to enter the Flow-state for performance. I think this is a crucial building block for a better understanding of how Flow differs between training/practice and performance. At Scoil 2014 I deliberately asked students to ‘change gear’, to ‘let go’ as they transitioned from establishing technical skills with detailed slow practice into full-speed trials of the new skill. I combined this with deliberate re-direction of Gaze, in order to enter a particular Flow-state for the full-speed trial. I used the imagery of a young bird learning to fly: flap the wings slowly, learn how they work; then jump off and fly. In this context, Yoda’s advice also holds good:

Yoda do or do not

Conscious doubt of whether or not one can succeed is a strong inhibitor of the subconscious Flow needed for that success.

I like Laszlo’s formulation that “The quality of performance depends on thoughts and feelings in your mind during performance.” When I was a student at the London Early Music Centre, tenor Edgar Fleet taught me that “Early Music is transparent. The audience can see through to what you are thinking about. If you are thinking about fish-and-chips, that’s what they’ll get. If you are thinking of something more meaningful, they’ll get that instead”. If we think about technique, audiences may appreciate our skill, but their passions will not be moved.

As Laszlo said in his opening remarks, we need to focus on Content and Meaning. I would add that such focus does not ‘distract us from our technique’, rather it helps us ‘let go’, and enter Flow. Let your subconscious handle technique, give your conscious mind something more interesting to think about, communicate better with your audience and also enter Flow. Win-win-win-win!

In private conversations, conference delegates reported to me that Laszlo’s coaching musicians to enter Flow has wonderful effects. I’m sure this is true, and I’m looking forward to reading his book (yep, it’s time to study Hungarian!) And what is the significance of Hungary’s position as a world-leader in pedagogy for Music (Kodaly method) and Fencing?

Other conversations dwelt on Laszlo’s personal conviction that discussion of Flow should include the language of magic. This was resisted by scientifically-minded delegates at the Cambridge conference, and it might not play well for Laszlo in academia generally. But here are my reasons for supporting Laszlo’s position. Flow is not a modern phenomenon, even though it has been named only recently. Our ancestors, right back to the first cave-painters experienced Flow, even if they did not name or analyse what they were experiencing. [More on the REM-state and evolution here] Flow and Hypnotism are clearly related to ancient traditions of folk-magic and shamanism.

Meanwhile, modern practitioners of Hypnosis recognise that different clients require different types of language. The word ‘sleep’ is used less today in Clinical Hypnosis, though it is still highly effective in Rapid Inductions. ‘Hypnosis’ or ‘Trance’ can be used with clients who are confident and comfortable with the idea of being hypnotised. For other clients, it’s better to invite them to a ‘resource state’ or ‘your own special state’. When I work with students on Flow, I take my cue from Ericksonian Hypnosis and adapt my vocabulary to match the student’s preferred language.  For an Early Music fan, I’ll talk about musica mondana and musica humana; for a new-age enthusiast, I’ll rephrase this in terms of Cosmic Harmony. For the nerd (yes, there are some Early Music nerds!), the Star Wars ‘Force’ may be the best metaphor. The Celtic Otherworld or Shamanism could be very powerful metaphors for someone who responds to such imagery. For someone with a science background, the metaphor of a computer, with its memory banks, operating system, keyboard inputs and background functions can be helpful.

From an Ericksonian perspective, it is the client/student, not the therapist/teacher, who chooses the vocabulary. From a historical perspective, ancient beliefs in music and magic are indeed related to the modern experience of music and Flow.  From my own, practical point of view, I’d recommend widening the vocabulary as much as possible, so as to offer Flow to students from all kinds of backgrounds. “Accept and utilise” is the Ericksonian mantra.

Thinking of the Historical priority that privileges the audience over the performer (in contrast to the 19th-century glorification of the ‘artistic genius’ and ‘expressive performer’), I raised the question at the Cambridge conference: is there any correlation between the Performer being in Flow, and audience members having a Strong Experience (shivers down your spine, the tingle factor, those powerfully emotional reactions to music)? The research project I’ve now begun on The Theatre of Dreams: Operatic Performance as an Early-Modern REM-state Activator assumes that around the year 1600 there was such a correlation, and draws on Ericksonian Hypnotism as an explanation. [More here]

 

Cambridge Mathematicians Bridge

WHAT COULD BE UNIVERSAL ABOUT MUSICAL IMPROVISATION? SITUATING THE COGNITIVE APPROACH

Andrew Goldman is a PhD student at the Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge. In addition to his scholarly research, he is a pianist and composer. Recently, his musical entitled Science! The Musical was premiered in Cambridge.

Abstract

Andrew Goldman reviewed trends in ethnomusicological and critical research on improvisation, showing how they challenge cognitive-scientific approaches and also how they share certain motivations (such as exploring performers’ creative processes). With specific reference to his own experimental research paradigms working with jazz musicians, he shows how such sensitivity can be an important check on the universalising tendency of scientific theorising, but also a way to demonstrate the broader validity of such scientific theories. This is accomplished through exploring modes of performance in terms of cognitive-scientific theoretical frameworks – such as motor theories of perception – in order to expand the explanatory scope of scientific conclusions beyond a particular musical tradition.

ALK summary

Andrew Goldman showed how daunting a task the serious, cognitive-scientific researcher faces, in attempting to establish solid,  reliable data for such richly complex activities as music-making and improvisation. His carefully designed and executed experiment established that time-delayed Feedback disrupted the performance of jazz pianists significantly more when they were improvising. From this, we can deduce that improvising (whatever that means: for this experiment the pianists were just instructed to improvise, and the results were accepted) is indeed different, and that the difference is somehow related to Feedback and to Time.

ALK comments

I admired this paper precisely because Andrew G’s conclusion was so carefully limited, precise in what it did not attempt to claim. Painstaking and sustained effort was needed to reach even this modest conclusion. This encourages great respect for those who are investigating complex phenomenon within the ‘hard’ scientific disciplines. We do need this check and balance on the tendency to universalise individual experience to general theory. Even if we can discover more, more quickly, through an experiential, phenomenological approach, we must constantly test the assumption that such experiences have any more general significance. A rounded view of complex phenomenon is likely to come about from a multi-disciplinary combination of various approaches, both “hard” and “soft”. [Andrew G tells me that he doesn’t like these labels, but I use them as a convenient shorthand, and with proper respect for both sides].

This paper was not about Flow. But I was interested in the topic of Improvisation anyway. I improvise a lot (in HIP styles) in performance; I direct The Harp Consort, an ensemble renowned for its HIP-improvisation; I’m a teacher of HIP-improvisation and I’m personally convinced that Improvisation is a valuable skill for any musician. Andrew Goldman gives us solid evidence that “improvising” [whatever that means] is “different”.

I suspect that scientific investigation of precisely how Improvisation is “different” will run into similar difficulties as scientific investigation of  Hypnosis, which has a much longer history. Neuroscientific observations of Hypnosis identify the characteristics of the activity happening (hallucinated or suggested under Hypnosis, or actually happening in a normal conscious state) rather than particular characteristics of Hypnosis itself. I suspect we will find the same is true for Flow. But in the face of this serious difficulty, Andrew G has established one clear difference, relating Improvisation [whatever that means] to Feedback. And we know from Csikszentmihalyi that Feedback is related to Flow. I have hypothesised that Improvisation may be related to Flow, and that Improvisation may be a gateway into Flow.

One possible explanation could be that Improvisation requires an Altered State of Consciousness, an inner focus that facilitates the calling up of material either from the memory, or from the imagination, or from the imaginative re-combination of memorised and imagined fragments. In ensemble improvisation, this inner focus must be combined with the processing of external information, the material improvised by other musicians. In any improvisation, this inner focus must be combined with the processing of the sound of the music one is creating, i.e. with Feedback. Improvising may self-induce a trance. In trance states, Suggestions can have particularly powerful effect. When improvising, it is the sound of this note that Suggests what note might follow. If that Feedback/Suggestion process is disrupted, the effect would be stronger in trance than in normal consciousness.

In one way, that explanation of mine is useless. It replaces one word we can’t define, Improvisation, with another word we can’t define, Hypnosis. In spite of all the years of investigation, there is still no accepted definition of Hypnosis, and no accepted scientific indicator of trance. Just as with Flow, there is a list of typical indicators: if someone experiences enough of these indicators, they are probably in that state. But the benefit of linking Improvisation, Flow and Hypnosis (no doubt there are distinctions to be made, alongside those links) would be that we could take the knowledge of Hypnosis acquired through many decades of practical investigation and scientific study, and quickly apply that knowledge (mutatis  mutandis) to Flow and/or Improvisation.  

Certainly, we should not be ashamed that we don’t really know what Improvisation or Flow is, in the strict scientific sense. In that sense, we don’t yet know what Hypnosis is, but we do know that it works, and that in certain circumstances, it can work magic, wreak miracles. An phenomenological approach might open up ways to extend good experiences of Hypnosis, Improvisation and Flow to the benefit of more people, more often. A ‘hard’ scientific approach can provide necessary balance by searching out chinks in the links, establishing how these related phenomena differ from each other. Ericksonian Hypnosis emphasises how one person’s experience can differ from another’s, and searches for ways to accept and utilise those differences. Can hard science establish what is universal, beyond such individual differences?

water drops

In the meantime, my own experiential investigations into the phenomenology of Flow and the Theatre of Dreams continue. More posts on these subjects soon. In particular, I will propose that Time Distortion effects (much studied in Hypnosis) are crucial to the understanding of two different kinds of Flow, in practice and in performance.

May the FLOW be with you

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Accessing Super-Creativity: May the FLOW be with you!

 

May the FLOW be with you

Many musicians, sportsmen and women, creative writers and composers know the special state of consciousness described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as Flow. It’s being ‘in the zone’, that ‘Zen feeling’. It’s related to Mindfulness. You’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated on the task at hand; you feel quietly confident that you can manage it, you feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge it presents to you; you don’t feel self-conscious, you are just ‘there’, in the moment, in the groove; somehow, Time seems to slow down, so that you can effortlessly take in all the incoming information, calmly make an elegant decision, and execute your response perfectly; your artistic intentions and your physical actions unite perfectly; you are working at high efficiency, but you could continue for hours without getting tired; you feel happy, even elated, yet somehow also calm.

Flow notes

It’s a great feeling, and it is the ability to find Flow just when it matters most that makes the crucial difference between an elite performer, musician, martial arts practitioner or sportsman, and one who is merely average. But when Flow is blocked by performance anxiety, ‘stage-fright’ for actors or musicians, ‘choking’ for sportsmen, the effect can be devastating. Under the blocking conditions of high pressure and no Flow, elite performers find themselves unable to carry out basic techniques, experienced airline pilots make elementary, disastrous errors; international sportsmen’s competence plunges to rock-bottom. Just think of the Brazil football team in the World Cup semifinal: something happened to disrupt the Flow of their previous performances, and they crashed into incompetence and embarrassing defeat.

Brazil world cup defeat

But Flow is not only for elite perfomers. Accessing Flow can lift any of us beyond the limits of our normal abilities, so that we perform at our very best, ‘better than we know’. Flow is the ideal state not only for high performance, but also for the most effective learning. Flow seems to access something beyond the ‘here and now’, and may also be communicable between members of a team, between performers and audience. Perhaps the Star Wars metaphor of a mysterious Force uniting us all is not so far-fetched.

Access Flow you can

I suggest that in many disciplines we could teach Flow from the very first lessons, allowing students to make faster, deeper and more satisfying progress. Not just (for classical musicians) Technique and Interpretation or (for sportsmen) techniques and tactics, but (for anyone) how to get into Flow at whatever level of technical competence and interpretative insight.

Cellist

There is exciting work already in progress about teaching Flow to musicians, some of which was discussed in a flurry of papers at the recent CMPCP conference at Cambridge Univeristy. Lazlo Stacho (Liszt Academy, Budapest) is developing exercises to help classical musicians enter Flow. Marcus Araujo (University of Aveiro) is measuring whether or not musicians are indeed experiencing Flow, according to criteria based on Csikszentmihalyi’s work. In a properly cautious initial study, Andrew Goldman (Centre for Music & Science, Cambridge) has established measurable differences in cognitive processes when musicians are instructed to ‘improvise’.  Henrice Vonk is looking at Flow and Mindfulness.  I’ll summarise and comment on these CMPCP papers in a future post.

Zampieri eyes

 Elsewhere, Frank Heckman is working with Flow with both elite sportsmen and music students in the Netherlands. In Bremen, violinist and psychotherapist Andreas Burzik works on Flow for orchestral musicians, drawing parallels for businessmen. I’ll comment on Burzik’s approach in another future post.

Accessing Super-Creativity

My own research for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions investigates Flow as an Altered State of Consciousness, within Joe Griffin’s model of the REM-state. Read more about Griffin’s Dream Theory here.

 

My aim is to build on existing work, and on my own personal experience of Flow as an elite performer (music), competent practitioner (sailing, a favourite example of Czikszentmihalyi’s) and elementary student (fencing), in order to develop exercises, teaching techniques, training conditions and rehearsal methodologies that facilitate entry into Flow.

My approach is therefore experiential, phenomenological and practical. Ethical considerations dictate that my first experiments are personal: observing, tweaking and testing my own experiences of Flow. When I’m teaching Flow to students, concern for their progress must outweigh the demands of pure research. My practical purpose is to help them access Flow. I can observe and monitor their work, and/or ask them to self-report on their personal experience, only in so far as this does not negatively impact their learning.

How far might that be? Lack of (negative) self-consciousness is one of the characteristics of the Flow state. This should serve to warn us that awareness of being observed will tend to work against Flow. We should expect to find the Observer Effect (familiar from quantum physics) at work: attempts to observe and measure sensitive processes will certainly effect the process itself, and that effect will probably be negative. In the worst case, trying to observe Flow (perhaps with an elementary student), might disrupt the Flow state we are trying to access and observe.

Schrodingers Cat

Neuroscience offers some fascinating data, and some understandings that can be applied to this search for Flow. But in the search for descriptions, explanations and recommendations that can be meaningful for students, metaphors and physical processes are likely to be more useful than neuroscience. It is more effective to ask a student to “focus inward” (a metaphor) or to “notice whether you have more weight on the right foot, or on the left” (directing attention to a physical process), than to “de-activate the anterior cingulate”, even if all three instructions are in some way equivalent, associated with switching conscious awareness away from externals.

cingulate

Another difficulty with a ‘hard science’ approach is that playing music, let alone finding Flow whilst playing music, is a complex activity full of rich detail. Reducing the experience to one variable may not be possible, or may be so distorting that any observations are invalid. It must be assumed that the music, one’s emotions and Flow itself will be affected by the intrusion of measuring equipment and the implied presence of an Observer.

Observer Effect

Looking for pathways into Flow, we first need to explore the territory, see the forest not the trees. Putting individual leaves under the microscope can come later, when we have learnt by experience and practice how to navigate the zone confidently.

A good parallel might be the scientific investigation of Hypnosis in the last half-century, where the phenomenological approach has led the way. Clinicians have discovered what works – experientially and practically – for them and for their clients, blazing a trail along which empirical verification and neuroscientific measurement can follow. Indeed the experience of Flow seems to have much in common with (self) hypnosis, and this will be one of the main lines of my enquiry.

Accessing Super-Creativity

My idea is to unite Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow with Ericksonian Hypnosis and Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice (the importance of many hours of effective practice, rather than innate talent, in creating elite performance), all within the framework of Griffin’s work on the REM-state. I am confident that this will offer a better understanding of the experience of Flow, improved success in accessing Flow, and greater efficacy in practice and performance. Watch out for more posts on Flow, soon.

Locking Attention

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.