• A flow state is what we're all chasing — here's how it actually works
  • A stunning work from Guo Fengyi, who believed her art has the power to heal
  • Links to some of the most interesting and inspiring stories on creative practice around the web this week: why our brains need breaks to be creative, Kehinde Wiley's artistic escape, why narcolepsy helps this scientist's imagination, and more
  • Grants, fellowships, prizes, job opportunities and more in creative disciplines and organizations
  • You know the one I mean

The science of art

What science and creativity gurus tell us about the secret to the flow state

When we imagine ourselves living a creative life, or picture our ideal creative self, we’re likely imagining ourselves absorbed in the act of creation: standing at an easel, or a keyboard, or a stovetop, so involved in our work we’re lost to the world around us.

What we’re picturing in these moments is ourselves experiencing a "flow state," a mental state in which one is completely immersed in an activity and is able to produce creative work of a high quality — it might feel like what you’re creating is just pouring out of you without you even intervening, like you’re a vessel for a higher creative force. The flow state is generally characterized by a sense of complete immersion in the task at hand, as well as intense focus and clarity of thought. It’s also often accompanied by a feeling of effortless control and enjoyment of the process — it feels good, even fun.

What characterizes a flow state — and makes it different than just focusing on something? Scientists have identified various mental, emotional, and physiological factors that contribute to the flow state, including a sense of challenge, a clear goal, and a feeling of connectedness to the task.

The physiological factors of the flow state are also important: a state of arousal, or heightened awareness, which helps the individual to focus and pay attention to the task at hand. It also involves a release of endorphins, which leads to a feeling of euphoria and satisfaction. It’s often associated with the presence of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which help to increase motivation and creativity. While we’re in a flow state, different parts of our brain may actually communicate with each other more efficiently, giving us a cognitive boost. Some scientists think that in a flow state, “frontal areas related to self-reflective thinking [are] less active”; this might speak to why it can feel like time suddenly flew by in a flow state, and why we find it easier to create without the voice of a critic in our head.

The scientific explanation makes it sound like a flow state is the result of careful calibration of multiple factors to create the perfect circumstances — and if you’ve been chasing inspiration or sitting at your work table day in and day out struggling to find the motivation to create anything, it might feel that way, too. But another way to look at it is that the description of being in a flow state — total immersion in the task at hand and the intense pleasure and satisfaction that comes with it — also sounds a lot like Julia Cameron’s explanation of “enthusiasm.”

“Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires more enthusiasm than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us. Enthusiasm (from the Greek, “filled with God”) is an ongoing energy supply tapped into the flow of life itself. Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. Far from being a brain-numbed soldier, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.”

Cameron’s definition is shared in contrast to the idea of what she calls “military discipline:” the emphasis on having rigid structure or a system of self-will to make creative work. Many artists say this kind of commitment is necessary; as Picasso said, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

This idea of pursuing joy rather than duty isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive with building routine or a steady practice; after all, Cameron herself recommends daily morning pages. The key might actually be in the combination of the two; part of what’s key in cultivating a flow state is taking on a task that’s challenging enough to be interesting, but not so hard that it’s frustrating. “A too easy task more likely leads to boredom, rather than flow. A too difficult task often leads to frustration, stress or lack of interest, which are all states that are largely incompatible with flow.”

A parallel might be found in considering Cameron’s dictate that “our artist is our child within, our inner playmate.” Think about a young child engaging in play; they’re often deeply invested, almost solemnly so; an outside observer can tell that they’re taking what they’re doing very seriously. That’s because for children, they’re learning so many new skills at once that much of play is at the level of challenge that makes for ideal flow states. You can see this as kids age; for very young children, very basic tasks like putting shaped blocks through the appropriate holes in a toy is very challenging, enough so to be satisfying and absorbing. For older children, that task wouldn’t be enough to get immersed in, but more complex ones, like practicing forming the letters of the alphabet or building a castle out of Legos, are. For children, a flow state is easily accessible — many skills and tasks are new to them and are thus challenging, and they haven’t yet developed the senses of self-consciousness and shame that keep them from trying things they aren’t already good at.

The key, then, is to find and explore the sweet spot of what’s currently creatively challenging for you without being so difficult that it discourages you, thinking in terms of your own skill and also your emotional and psychological resilience for being imperfect.

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Creative soundbites

🚿 Why we need daydreaming, laziness, and letting our minds wander in the shower to be truly creative

🏋🏽‍♀️ Creativity is a skill that can be strengthened — here are some thoughts on how

🖌️  Exploring Creative Growth, the studio for artists with intellectual, physical, and developmental disabilities

😴  One of the world’s most imaginative scientists on how his narcolepsy — and dreams — fuel his best ideas

🏡 “It is a temple to solitude, a space to create much more experimental work.” Kehinde Wiley’s home and studio

Visual of the week

Guo Fengyi, The Grave of Lao Jun (Lao Zi), 1990

“This Chinese artist didn’t begin making her astonishing scrolls until 1989, when she was in her late forties. That was the year of the Tiananmen massacre, but Guo wasn’t responding to world events—the mythic beings she brought to electrifying life (from the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara to Santa Claus) came to her in visions. A few years earlier, severe arthritis had forced the artist to quit her job as a chemical analyst in Xi’an, where she lived until her death, in 2010, at the age of sixty-eight. She took up Qigong to alleviate pain; soon she was transcribing revelations. She believed that her scrolls, most of which are twelve to thirty feet high, had the power to heal.”- Andrea K. Scott in the New Yorker

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