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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.