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Creative flow: what’s going on inside the brain when everything just clicks – podcast

Illustration of jazz saxophonist.
Barandash Karandashich/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever experienced a state of creative flow, perhaps when writing, playing music, or even gardening, you’ll know that it feels like everything just clicks into place. But what is actually happening inside the brain?

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we speak to a neuroscientist who scanned the brains of jazz musicians as they were improvising, and revealed the secret ingredients need to achieve a state of flow.

“Flow has been described as effortless attention,” says John Kounios. “It’s pleasurable. There’s no distraction.” Kounios is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia in the US, where his research focuses on the neuroscience of creativity.

Behavioural pyschologists have been fascinated by the idea of flow since Mihály Csíkszentmihályi began investigating it in the 1970s. But Kounios and his colleagues – a team of present and former graduate students led by David Rosen – wanted to better understand the brain mechanisms underlying it. They recruited 32 jazz musicians from Philadelphia to help find out.

The pitch was to get them into the lab so that we could reveal to them and to ourselves what’s going on in their brains when they actually improvise.

The musicians included both very experienced guitarists and relative novices. They were asked to improvise to a set of chord progressions, all while hooked up to an electroencephalogram that recorded the electrical activity of their brains. Afterwards, the musicians were asked if they felt they’d achieved creative flow as they improvised, and their performances were then rated by expert musicians for creativity.

Unsurprisingly, the more experienced musicians reported experiencing flow more often and their performances were rated more highly by the experts than the novices. And the brain scans began to reveal just how closely flow was linked to expertise.

The most experienced musicians had a network of brain areas in the left hemisphere that was associated with a high state of flow. And we didn’t see that in the less experienced musicians. So that suggested right there that experience allowed these high performing musicians to develop a specialised brain network for jazz improvisation, built up over many years of performing and practising.

Listen to John Kounios talk more about what his research revealed about the inner workings of the brain during creative flow on The Conversation Weekly podcast. The episode also features Kate Kilpatrick, Philadelphia editor at The Conversation in the US.

A transcript of this episode will be available shortly.

This episode of The Conversation Weekly was written by Gemma Ware and produced by Mend Mariwany and Katie Flood. Sound design was by Eloise Stevens, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. Stephen Khan is our global executive editor and Soraya Nandy helps with our transcripts.

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