Mihalyi Csıkszentmihalyi is well known for introducing the concept of ‘ﬂow’ into research on creativity; people enter a ‘ﬂow state’ when they are fully absorbed in activity during which they lose their sense of time and have feelings of great satisfaction. Csıkszentmihalyi describes ‘ﬂow’ as:
being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time ﬂies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. [i]
The concept of ‘ﬂow’ came out of a major research study[ii]. Csıkszentmihalyi and his team interviewed ninety-one people who could be called creative because they had transformed their ﬁeld in a publicly acknowledged way, scientists who had won the Nobel Prize, artists who were leaders of new movements and so on. He found that when they really engaged with their ﬁeld and with producing new ideas or products, all reported a sense of joy and of inner reward. Some reported that the quality of time itself changed from being the external context of actions to becoming an internal ﬂow in which awareness of the passage of time disappeared.
So many creative people described being carried along by a current that Csıkszentmihalyi decided upon the word ‘ﬂow’ to describe this state. Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterised by a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity. A key component is the loss of a division between self and world.
Freeman Dyson, who made a major contribution to quantum theory, was interviewed by Csıkszentmihalyi. Like many creative people he echoed the point that creative work seems to have two sides to it. He describes how, after he immersed himself intensively in reading the relevant literature about a cutting-edge problem in physics, he took a break and went touring across California. The solution to the problem suddenly came to him and he felt impelled to write it down. He writes of his experience of creativity:
I always ﬁnd that when I am writing, it is really the ﬁngers that are doing it and not the brain. Somehow the writing takes charge. And the same thing happens of course with equations ...The trick is to start from both ends and to meet in the middle, which is essentially like building a bridge[iii].
Summing up the ﬁndings of his interviews with creative people Csıkszentmihalyi adds:
Creative thoughts evolve in this gap ﬁlled with tension – holding on to what is known and accepted while tending towards a still ill-deﬁned truth that is barely glimpsed on the other side of the chasm. Even when thoughts incubate below the threshold of consciousness, this tension is present[iv]
The points made about ‘flow’ in individuals apply equally to groups. Keith Sawyer, who was one of Csıkszentmihalyi’s research students at Chicago University, underlines this point when he writes: ‘Csıkszentmihalyi found that the most common place people experienced flow was in conversation with others’.[v]
The problem with ‘Flow’
While ‘ﬂow’ is a very valuable description of what creativity often feels like from within, it is not a theory of creativity. A theory would involve some sort of explanation for the transformation of time effect. A useful theory would be able to generate predictions. To develop a theory we need a causal process that leads both to the altered experience of time and to creativity.
Loss of a sense of time is not enough to define creative flow. Some video games like ‘Candy Crush’ are described as addictive. As with solving non-verbal reasoning test problems there is something creative about finding each pattern in the game. This is reinforced with rewards. The uncertain possibility of reward makes playing intrinsically motivating in the way that many find gambling highly motivating.
A scale of circuit size for 'flow'?
In games like Candy Crush there is some ‘Aha!’ type creative problem solving. There is the tension of a problem and then the satisfaction of finding a creative resolution to that tension. This pattern of problem and resolution is also found in Csıkszentmihalyi’s sample of major innovators. The main difference seems to be the scale. Freeman Dyson, quoted above, made a significant contribution to the ongoing long-term dialogue of physics after struggling with unresolved tensions in the field over a period of months if not years. Creative participation in long-term, large-scale dialogues of culture is valued while the short-term small scale creativity required to resolve problems in most video games is seen as a distraction.
The outside-in, inside out pattern of creative flow
In cases where time seems to stop because of focussed engagement there seems to be a pattern:
- An initial state of division and solidity. An inside and an outside. The outside as fixed. Dissatisfaction with this. E.g Dyson Freeman initially encounters the mathematics of Quantum physics as something outside of him that he does not fully grasp.
- Internalisation. The outside becomes more fluid as options are explored and alternative patterns tried out in imagination. From being fixed it moves 'into dialogue'. E.G Dyson Freeman spends months reading and absorbing all the literature he can find on an area of quantum physics.
- Externalisation. The inside goes back to the outside to transform it. Tension is resolved in an experience of flow. E.G Dyson Freeman finds his fingers writing solutions that he did not yet know he had found.
The essence of ‘flow’ is not ‘time’ as such but that boundaries fall away. This can be illustrated with a short video clip of ‘free running’. These free runners are taking an environment most of us would see as an external constraint on our movements and turning it into a support for their movement. In a sense they expand into the environment in order to become the environment. This is to realise through action what is in fact the hidden truth of perception which is, as Merleau-Ponty put it, that the world is not an object at all but 'the ensemble of my bodies routes’[vi].
Merleau-Ponty gives a nice concrete experiment we can all do to explore the ‘metaphysical’ construction of space and time. Try touching your left arm with your right hand. Moving the fingers you can experience being the right hand touching. But it is also possible to switch perspective and focus on the experience you have of your left arm being touched. Now close your eyes and ask yourself where exactly does this touching and being touched couple occur? It seems to have a clear location but that is within a model of the world and the body that you have always already constructed out of innumerable small events of touching and being touched, seeing and being seen etc. In other words this event cannot be strictly located within space and time because it is one source of the model of space and time.
When you touch your left arm with your right hand you are on both sides of the interaction, you are both subject (touching) and object (touched). This is the often hidden truth of all perception. When you push against the solid wall in front of you you experience yourself on both sides of the interaction. You are also the wall pushing back against the body.
We experience space and time as barriers and enemies when we define ourselves as limited beings within space and time. We watch the clock on the wall. We wait for something. We feel trapped. But if we identify instead with the boundary out of which both space and time are constantly being created – the boundary that generates a ‘self’ on one side and a ‘world’ on the other side – then we are space and time in the act. Flow, understood metaphysically, is shifting identification from some sort of image of a bounded self within some sort of fixed image of an encircling world to the dynamic boundary itself out of which space, time and meaning are constantly being generated.
Notes towards a theory of flow
In flow one moves from being a voice defined and located as within a dialogue to becoming that dialogue in action. Dialogic flow can be defined through the way in which participants do not identify with themselves or with the group, if this is considered as a bounded and defined group, but with the flow of dialogue itself. In other words they experience flow because they shift identity from bounded images to the dynamic boundary or what I elsewhere call the ‘dialogic gap’. This gap between self and other expands, when it is entered, into an experience of 'dialogic space' which is a space within which identities of every kind become fluid because they are 'put into dialogue' and become seen as possibilities rather than as barriers.
Flows are all creative but they are not all equally creative. One can have a flow experience in interaction with a smart-phone screen but this can be a kind of short-circuit distracting creative energy away from engaging in larger dialogues. Flows with longer-term and larger scale dialogues – like the long-term dialogues of culture we celebrate in education – are more satisfying both for individuals and for groups.
This account goes beyond the description of flow to give some indications of a potential theory of creativity but it is not yet sufficient to be a clear and testable theory. One possible hypothesis could be that those who can control their experience of space and time to some extent by focusing awareness on the boundary experiences that construct a world and a body are likely to be more capable of solving creative insight problems. Focusing attention on the boundaries of the body, especially where the breath comes in and goes out but also the various points of contact between body and world, is the basis of the kind of Buddhist Vipassana or ‘insight’ meditation that has now been adopted in western clinical psychology as ‘mindfulness’. Such a link has been suggested by Kounios and Beeman[vii] but could be the basis of further experimental study.
[i] Geirland, John (1996). Go With The Flow. Wired magazine, September, Issue 4.09. http://www.wired.com/magazine...
[ii] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention.
New York: Harper Perennial.
[iii] 44 Ibid., p. 119
[iv] 45 Ibid., p. 103
[v] Sawyer, K. (2007). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York: Basic Books:
[vi] Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible p 247
[vii] Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2015). The eureka factor: creative insights and the brain. Random House