Learning to Flow

To Flow

A study of jazz musicians where their brains where scanned while they where improvising showed that one part of their brain became active while another part became less active.

The part that activated is called the medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part that is associated with having a clear idea of what is being done. It is active when the knowledge (or understanding) comes from within the person. This portion is dominant during events like story telling, when we are sharing an experience, something that we are intimately connected to.

At such times the part of the brain that judges, inhibits or limits becomes less active. This part is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

With the brain in this state jazz musicians access a creative potential that is seemingly outside of themselves and yet it is based on having a clear idea of what they are trying to do.


How can we enter this state for ourselves?

Chances are you’ve already experienced this state of being but you didn’t know how or why or perhaps you just accepted that it was because you were doing something that you loved.

How can we recreate this love?

The key aspect is having a clear idea of what we are trying to do. With the jazz musicians at the time of the test they were playing variations based on a C-major scale (and then later they improvised on a melody written by the test orchestrator.) They knew the limits within which they where playing and within those limits creative potential flowed.

Do we need years of practice in order to do the same. Basically no. I’m not saying that we can all become Jazz musicians (at least not unless we put the practice in) but what I am saying is that if we have a clear idea of what we are trying to do then within the bounds of that clear idea we can learn to flow.

We could be practicing or we could be expressing ourselves (the equivalent of playing a concert) but in either case we can enter the state of flow by having a clear idea of what we are trying to do.

Practicing Chunks
Of Rhythm

Generally when we are practicing, or more specifically learning, something new, if what we are practicing is small enough or short enough then we can hold it in our short term memory. By so doing we then “know” what we are trying to do even though the knowing is only in short term memory. We can then practice and practice over again until what we are practicing becomes a part of ourselves.

Now here in is the second part of key, rhythm.

If we find a way of practicing what we are doing with rhythm, then we may find it even easier to enter the flow.

For myself I used to enter this state frequently when I was learning new math techniques. Each problem (copied from a text book) represented a unit of rhythm. I’d do the question and then look back at it to check myself, and then I’d move on to the next question. Or if I was really learning something new, I could focus on one small part of the problem solving technique, practice writing it till I remembered it and then move on to the next bit. With practice I found a rhythm where time no longer seemed to flow, because I was flowing with time.

Brush Strokes

In another instance of practice, I’ve found rhythm similarly helpful in entering the flow while practicing or learning chinese characters.

In order to memorize or learn a character, particularly one with a lot of strokes, I would practice just a few of those strokes at a time, only as much as I could remember. I wouldn’t try to rush through the strokes, rather I’d try to feel them so that they actually process of painting each brush stroke was enjoyable. I engaged myself in what I was doing by using my senses. Then as I learned the set of strokes I was working on, when I could do them comfortably, then I added the next few strokes.

If you’ve ever been to an aerobics or dance class where you learn a piece of choreography, dance instructors usually do the same thing, teach little bits of choreography at a time and then move on.

The challenge in such an envioronment, especially if you are a beginner is sometimes the instructor moves too fast. And so when doing by yourself you can practice till you are comfortable and then you move on.


Another thing to note about the dance class scenario, the more experience you have having learned dance moves before, generally the easier it is to learn something new. And this can be the same with everything else, generally the more experience we have the quicker we can learn but in each case, if we break down what we are learning into chunks of rhythm then we can learn easily and at the same time we can enter the flow. (And we can gain more experience faster.)

Improvising vs
Set Pieces

So now then a discussion on improvising as compared to performing something that is more of a set piece. Do we enter the same “head space” in both of these scenarios?

I have no scientific proof but my feeling is that yes we do. When doing a “set piece” i.e. non improvisational, the energy that fills us when we are in the zone is the type of energy that makes it easier for us to do what we are doing. It carries us within the limits of what we are doing even though those limits are more firmly defined than say while doing a jazz improvisational piece.

It’s a state where we seem to be watching ourselves do the work. We are an audience in our own body.

As for improvisation, well there the creative energy carries us in a different way but I believe the energy comes from the same source, the same state of being which I’ll continue to refer to as flowing (or being in the zone). It’s a state where you know what to do and how to do it and it is a state where you know what is going to happen (and who is going to do it) in the next instant in time.

Getting into
the Flow

How do we get to this place when performing?

With a focus on something that is in the present.

With the jazz musicians the melody they improvise on is the starting point. It gives the brain a hook or a prototype from which to vary. It gives a clearly defined meaning and even a direction for expression.

Doing a set piece we might find this hook by noticing some aspect of the way we hold our body or even the way we connect to our instrument, or perhaps a sensation in part of our body that we never realized was there. If on introspection we realize what the sensation is a result of we can follow that line of thought into the present where we can flow.

Prior to “going on stage” we might find that focusing on and doing some rhythmic exercise helps us to flow. The key in all cases is not to focus on what is outside of ourselves. By that I mean we aren’t trying to impress someone. Instead the focus is on what we can affect and what we can directly change ourselves. That means taking charge of our body and whatever it is connected to. To do that we feel our body, we sense it, notice it, and we control it.

We can do that with small rhythmic movements. Not complex or difficult, but simple single pointed focusing exercises where we can focus on “feeling” or sensing the part that is moving.

It might be as simple as a relaxing walk if we have the time or space, or doing a yoga practice or tai ji, or better yet focusing on some small aspect of a practice that we do regularly. It might mean focusing on one line that we have to deliver and focusing on the meaning of that line.

Or it can be as simple as feeling the way we connect with the earth.

Rhythm and
a Clear Idea

My point is that we can enter the flow at will. And if we want to get good at something, really good, then the thing that we can practice is getting into the flow regularly. We can do that while learning and while expressing ourselves. We can do that with rhythm and with finding a clear idea to focus on and while focusing on what we can feel and sense now .