Neuroimaging reveals the brain’s path to achieving a creative flow state

Brain oscillations during jazz improvisation show evidence of creative flow.


You can accomplish many tasks quickly and joyfully when you’re in a flow state. People value it in many domains, including business, the arts, and education. A recent Drexel University study shows how the brain goes into this creative flow state.

Observing jazz players improvising, they discovered that two factors are critical: a great deal of experience, which creates a neural network in the brain that facilitates idea generation, and letting go of control, which permits this network to function without overanalyzing.

Under the direction of John Kounios, Ph.D., and David Rosen, Ph.D., the group found that releasing control can facilitate creative flow after sufficient proficiency in a given field.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state in which individuals are wholly absorbed in a task and find it delightful to continue despite difficulties. Despite its widespread use and research, flow needs to be understood clearly. This study clarifies the connection between flow and the development of creative ideas.

According to a different theory regarding creative flow, the brain develops a specific network through years of practice that enables it to produce ideas—like musical ones—without much effort. Here, the control system in the brain unwinds, allowing the musician to let this specialized network function on its own.

Gaining a great deal of experience and relinquishing control are crucial. The investigation supports this theory. To test these beliefs, researchers observed the brain activity of thirty-two jazz guitarists with different degrees of experience while they performed improvisations. They discovered brain regions linked to intense creative flow.

More often and more intensely than less experienced musicians, highly experienced musicians experienced flow, suggesting that expertise is a factor in attaining flow. However, other factors than knowledge affect the flow of creativity.

The EEG findings showed that enhanced activity in particular brain regions related to hearing and creating music was associated with a high-flow mood. On the other hand, they reduced activity in the executive control area of the brain. This implies that “transient hypofrontality,” or letting go of conscious control, is necessary for creative flow.

Flow was linked to more significant activation in the visual and auditory areas in highly skilled musicians. However, they also revealed decreased activity in certain regions of the default-mode network, suggesting that this network was not substantially influencing the artists’ ability to generate ideas connected to flow.

Less seasoned musicians required higher levels of flow-related brain activity. According to the study, developing competence and learning to relinquish control is necessary for reaching productive flow states. This may result in novel approaches to the instruction of creative thinking. Kounios asserts that proficiency and practice are crucial. But once you’re proficient, relax and let your imagination go wild.

This study gives us important clues about how the brain gets into a creative flow state. By knowing how the brain works during flow, researchers can find ways to help people be more creative and productive in different areas.

Journal reference:

  1. David Rosen, Yongtaek Oh, et al., Creative flow as optimized processing: Evidence from brain oscillations during jazz improvisations by expert and non-expert musicians. Neuropsychologica. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2024.108824.