AI: Flow

Have you ever been so fully engaged in an activity that all awareness of the outside world stops?

This is a psychological state called flow. Someone in a state of flow will lose all sense of time and self-consciousness as they devote every ounce of concentration to the task at hand. It’s said to be a lot like meditation.

When I first started looking into this subject, I thought it was only something that happened to people in a state of active performance — musicians, athletes, maybe even actors. The book Zen and the Art of Archery, a basic how-to guide on harnessing flow, has been used and adapted for musicians and athletes for years. When you’re in the act of performing, thinking can sometimes even be a hindrance. Flow is essential for a good performance.

But according to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the pioneer researcher of this psychological phenomenon, it happens to almost everyone. Painters, writers, poets, business executives, computer gamers. There are stories about Michaelangelo going into a state of flow while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — he painted for days straight, never taking breaks for food or sleep.

What activities send you into a state of flow? What does flow feel like to you?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. I experience this all the time with any activity that requires concentration. Sadly it happens most when I’m gaming, and then my afternoon has slipped away >_>

  2. I also experience flow regularly, with any demanding task. It is the most gratifying when I’m drawing though. One minute there’s a blank page, and by the time I get up to go pee (that’s usually the only distraction that breaks my concentration) I’ve got a finished work of art. It’s great when it happens, but getting into an art flow can be a bit more work than getting into a Geometry Wars flow.

  3. Painting & when I give talks. The latter is different because I am aware of everything but the focus and pressure/adrenalin amps everything up making me feel wittier and as if I have an answer to any question that could be thrown my way. I don’t know if that’s flow but it’s definitely a different state.

  4. Happens constantly to me (when I was a kid, teachers would either get mad at me for ignoring them, or request that my parents get my hearing tested). My awareness of self is definitely diminished, but my train of though never stops — my mind tends to wander endlessly, particularly when I’m drawing or painting, so I like to put the TV or a podcast on while I work to keep my brain distracted.

  5. Hmmph, there ought to be a rule that interesting questions shouldn’t be asked during the Tour de France. 🙂

    Making music is where flow happens for me. Since last talking about this I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I wonder if there are other times when it happens to me. I’m an utilitarian cyclist, the bike is my primary transportation, and there have been a few times mountain biking where I’ve felt flow. It has always been on fast twisty sections. In such situations action and reaction have to be instantaneous, there simply isn’t time to think things through.

    I also wonder if it happens sometime when I’m reading. I stated before that I crave the flow state because it shuts up critical voice in my head. I’ve always thought that I love reading so much because that voice is replaced by someone else’s. But there’s been plenty of times where I’ve been so engrossed in a novel that external time has become meaningless.

    What flow feels like is an interesting question. It seems to depend on what other states my brain is in and in what situation I’m in at the time it’s happening.

    If I get into flow when I’m practicing by myself it often doesn’t feel like anything in particular. It’s more like sleep than anything. I come back to myself and I find that more time has passed than I would have thought and usually I’m stiff and sore from not moving around enough. But it does depend on what I’m practicing. If it’s some kind of through composed thing that I know well the time in flow is mostly missing time. If I’m improvising then it can be a more aware state. I’ll be able to remember the points where my emotional expression felt in sync with my attempts to express it. It also can feature these weird moments where I feel like my intellect is separate from my hands. I’ll be playing some riff or chord sequence, usually something that I’ve repeated a few times, and I’ll decide that now I should vary it. That decision isn’t verbal but it is conscious, clear and precedes the motion of my hands. I wish I could describe how it feels to make a conscious decision that isn’t verbal, but I can’t imagine how to do that using words. The truth is though that flow is rareish for my in solo practice. The self critical nature of such practice makes it hard to achieve. It happens more to me in group rehearsal and performance.

    When I’m playing with a group flow feels different again because there’s that external input to deal with. What happens to me in a group when I achieve flow is that it opens up my ears. I have less trouble hearing past what I’m playing to what everyone else is doing. I can hear the totality better than when I’m not in flow. When I’m struggling or just plodding along I tend to skip my attention around to individual instruments as needed. In this chorus I’ll focus on the bass drum because that rhythm is tricky and it really needs to drive, or on that bridge I need to focus on the lead guitar because he tends to drag the phrase a little there. But in flow it all just comes to me as a coherent whole.

    In solos especially that executive non-verbal decision making feels fucking fantastic. I never question myself, I never decide to play it safe or to stretch for that matter, I just play. And here’s the really kicker, if I take a chance and it doesn’t work it doesn’t throw me the way it would if I wasn’t in flow. I suspect that the timeless aspect of flow is responsible for this. Live performance is an art in which time is an inextricable part. Every note you play is gone as soon as the next comes, it’s gone except in the memories of the performer and audience. If you’re in flow then your temporal memory is short circuited somehow and that’s a great benefit for a hyper self-critical idiot like me.

    Another great benefit of flow in live performance is the expansion of the rhythmic pocket. I’m not all that great a musician, it’s why don’t make a living at it, and rhythm is my weakest point. But there has been a couple of gigs where the band was clicking and I was in flow where the pocket expanded out to where I could push or drag the beat consciously. Those are the times where it felt like my right hand was connected to our drummers right foot. Those are the times when the band is an eight armed, single headed monster. Where time is no longer a matter of deadlines, thinning hair or getting the bub to preschool but is something to subjugate, subdivide and throw out to the audience where it’s caught by the feet of women.

    Fuck I miss being in a band.

    It’s the last 10k on tonight’s stage so I’m going to watch people suffer for my entertainment now. I hope that was useful.

  6. I kinda fear starting any project when I know I’ll only have a little bit of time to work on it, for fear of finding that flow and being forced to stop. This could also be a form of procrastination, but when it’s good, it’s goooooooooood and don’t you make me stop, dammit.

    I totally get this when I’m making stuff. More often building/making physical stuff, and then if I’m lucky I can kinda shift the flow over into more mundane, but tangentially related, pursuits. I also get it when I’m reading, and, oddly, sometimes when I’m cleaning. Because I must CLEAN ALL THE THINGS! (Actually, Allie’s post about Being An Adult is somewhat how it happens. Particularly in that it generally culminates in 4am internet marathons.)

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