Enhancing Creativity with Flow
When Steve Jobs was designing the offices for Pixar, he did something rather odd.
He had a large atrium constructed in the center of the building. He placed the mailboxes, the cafeteria, the meeting rooms, and the bathrooms — the only ones in the building — next to the open-air structure.
It forced employees to bump into one another randomly. It created novelty, complexity, and unpredictability. The office space became the unlikely dopamine dealer, delivering pleasure and motivation.
The result: creativity and productivity went up around the office, and Pixar becomes the Oscar-winning powerhouse that it is today.
Not a coincidence.
You can read more about “group flow” by clicking here, but finish this one first.
Tackling Creativity and Flow
Creativity tops nearly every "Desired Skills List" list ever made. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills—a collection of 250 researchers at 60 institutions—says creativity is the skill kids will need to thrive in the future.
In 2010, IBM conducted a global survey of 1500 CEOs in 60 countries. Creativity was the single most important trait in a CEO – more than rigor, management, discipline, integrity, or even vision. The problem is we still have no real idea how to train people to be more creative. "Flow states" can change this equation—though this will take some explanation.
Can You Train Creativity?
Technically, flow is defined as an "optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best."
It’s also a strange state of consciousness.
In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away.
Action and awareness merge. Time slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). All aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.
In a recent Australian study, 40 research subjects were presented with an exceptionally tricky brain teaser—the kind that requires deep creative insight to solve. No one solved it. But when flow was induced artificially using transcranial magnetic stimulation (it’s less barbaric than it sounds – I promise), 23 subjects got the answer right and in record time. In a more general (and still preliminary) study run by my organization, The Flow Research Collective, everyone from entrepreneurs to scientists to writers reported being seven times more creative in flow. Most importantly, Harvard’s Teresa Amiable discovered that not only are people more creative in flow, they also report being more creative the day after a flow state—suggesting that flow doesn’t just heighten creativity in the moment, it heightens it over the long haul. In other words, being in flow actually trains us to be more creative.
Neurobiology is Key In flow, our brainwaves move from the fast-moving beta waves of normal waking consciousness down to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta waves. Alpha is associated with day-dreaming mode—when we can slip from thought to thought without much internal resistance. Theta only shows up during REM or just before we fall asleep, in that hypnagogic gap where ideas combine in truly radical ways. Since creativity is always re-combinatory—the product of novel information bumping into old thoughts to create something startling new—being able to slip between thoughts quickly and combine them wildly enhances creativity at a very fundamental level. But brainwaves are only the beginning of this discussion.
Flow is also caused by "transient hypo-frontality"— the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is the part of our brain that houses most of our higher cognitive functions. Because your sense of self is generated by large portions of the prefrontal cortex, when large swatches of this area no longer open for business, that sense vanishes completely.
This has huge consequences for creativity.
During flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control—goes quiet. The DLPFC is our inner critic. It’s the voice of doubt and disparagement. As a result, we’re far less critical and far more courageous. This combination augments our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities. The brain also releases an enormous cascade of neurochemistry during flow. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin flood our system.
Norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information. They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways.
Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system. Taken together, these neurochemical, neuroelectrical and neuroanatomical changes in brain function provide us with an exceptionally potent workaround for the problem of teaching people how to be more creative.
Instead of having to come at this thorny problem head on, we can instead train up people’s ability to find flow and the state’s neurobiology takes care of the rest.
If you want more cutting edge ways to get your biology to work for you, and not against you, (shameless plug) grab a copy The Art of Impossible. It’s a practical playbook for peak performance. Get at it!