Jazz has a unique element that separates it from the other musical genres. It relies heavily on improvisation allowing the musician to express themselves and demonstrate their technical prowess through their solos. During improvisation the musician does not have time to think or engage the rational part of the mind. Rather they must immerse themselves in the music, let their intuition guide them and rely on the muscle memory and musical knowledge that they developed through countless hours of practice.
In order to reach peak performance, the soloist must let go, embrace spontaneity and ‘go with the flow.’ Known for his spontaneous prose, ‘Beat Generation’ author Jack Kerouac writes about this sought-after mental state in his seminal book On the Road. Contrasting the self-conscious musician to one who is connected to the music he writes,
“Prez has the technical anxieties of a money-making musician, he’s the only one who is well dressed, see him grow worried when he blows a clinker [a wrong note], but the leader, that cool cat tells him not to worry and just blow – the mere sound and serious exuberance of the music is all he cares about
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Whether it is through music, art, or being ‘in the zone’ whilst playing a sport, we all strive to be in what psychologists call the flow state. Completely immersed in what one is doing, focused on the task at hand and free from the mental chatter that dominates our day to day lives. Coined by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow states involve,
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……… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
To achieve a state of flow one must walk the line between discipline and surrender. That is, they must engage in an activity that is sufficiently challenging and rewarding utilizing their skills developed in a particular area. However, to achieve creativity and perform at an optimal level, one must be able to let go of conscious thought, expectations and the fear of failure. Only through quieting our mind and surrendering our self to the experience can you enter a state of flow.
Research demonstrates that when an individual is improvising key areas of their brain are less active, namely the default mode network and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The default mode network is the part of the brain that is active while someone is day dreaming, and is associated with one’s ego – constantly critiquing one’s thoughts and actions. Moreover, the DLPFC is the region responsible for ‘conscious self-monitoring.’ Decreasing activity in these two regions of the brain allows us to be more courageous, confident and push our limits to become more creative and discover new possibilities.
In an age of constant digital distraction and ‘busyness’, many of us find it difficult to set out the time to engross ourselves in one task. But why should we care about flow? Research proves that there are significant benefits of entering flow states. A study conducted by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile noted that individuals reported higher levels of creativity, happiness and productivity three days after they experienced a flow state.
Humans have always sought to push the boundaries of our existence, to discover new frontiers and learn more about the possibilities of human consciousness. We engage in activities such as rock climbing, mountaineering and extreme sports which seem may seem illogical to the rational mind. However, as dangerous as they may be, these are all attempts to enter a state of flow. To temporarily forget about the mundane aspects of modern society, to dissolve one’s ego, and as the famous rapper Eminem preached to “lose yourself in the moment.”
Next post I will continue my discussion on flow states, focusing on how we can manufacture and trigger these states of mind.