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Want to be more productive at work? Aim for a state of creative 'flow'

A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia advises taking inspiration from jazz musicians to maximise our cognitive abilities

Published: Apr 23, 2024 03:30:35 PM IST
Updated: Apr 23, 2024 09:09:25 PM IST

Want to be more productive at work? Aim for a state of creative 'flow' When you experience creative flow, things seem to happen with ease. When you experience creative flow, things seem to happen with ease. Image: Shutterstock

Many employees find it difficult to concentrate on their work. Some try various methods to get themselves into a state of complete concentration and productivity. A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia advises taking inspiration from jazz musicians to maximize our cognitive abilities.

The research focuses on what is known as "flow." This term refers to a state of total concentration, during which body and mind are completely absorbed in a single task. American-Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi was the first to take an interest in this subject in the 1970s, during research into the creative process.

Since then, psychological research has shown that the experience of flow—or being "in the zone" —can enhance physical and mental performance. Anyone can experience moments of flow in their free time or at work. But athletes, musicians and artists are more likely to be frequently immersed in this psychological state.

That's why researchers from Drexel University (USA) recruited some 30 jazz guitarists to understand the key brain processes associated with flow. The artists had varying levels of experience, depending on the number of public performances they had given.

The scientists placed electrodes on the musicians' heads to record their brain waves as they improvised to chord sequences and rhythms provided to them. In addition, the guitarists were asked to rate the degree of flow they felt while playing the guitar. The experts also listened to the songs the participants had created to determine how creative they had been.

The role of expertise

It turns out that the performances deemed most creative were those during which guitarists reported being in a state of flow. More seasoned musicians were more likely to experience moments of flow while playing their instrument than novices, suggesting that experience is a prerequisite for accessing a state of flow.

From a cerebral perspective, the researchers found that experienced musicians who had moments of flow while playing guitar showed reduced activity in parts of their frontal lobe known to be involved in executive functions. Conversely, brain areas involved in hearing and vision were more engaged, which makes sense given that the guitarists improvised while reading chord sequences and listening to musical rhythms.

Also read: The rising importance of soft skills in driving productivity

These findings show just how different the brain's mental state is from ordinary wakefulness when experiencing flow. The researchers write that their findings are "consistent with the idea that creative flow represents optimized domain-specific processing enabled by extensive practice paired with reduced cognitive control."

This research deepens our understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in flow. It shows that this state requires a certain technical mastery and expertise. When you're immersed in flow, things seem to happen with ease. You feel as if you're in total control of what you're doing. In fact, this feeling of total mastery is what makes moments of flow so enjoyable.

To experience this on a regular basis, you need to strive to become better at what you do, by setting yourself stimulating challenges, for example. But make sure they're not unrealistic. Otherwise, stress can take the place of flow.

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