Scientists team up with jazz musicians to reveal the neuroscience of creative flow

Have you ever found yourself so deeply absorbed in an activity that the world around you seemed to disappear? This state of intense focus and enjoyment, known as “flow,” has been a subject of fascination and study across various disciplines. A groundbreaking study published in the journal Neuropsychologia by researchers from Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab sheds light on how our brains achieve this coveted state of creative flow.

Through examining jazz musicians during improvisation, the study reveals that the key to entering flow lies in a combination of extensive experience and the ability to “let go,” allowing for specialized brain networks to operate with minimal conscious oversight.

The research team, led by Drexel University professor John Kounios, sought to address a long-standing question in the fields of psychology and neuroscience: How does the human brain achieve a state of flow, particularly in creative endeavors?


Despite flow being a widely recognized and valued state of consciousness, characterized by an immersive sense of focus, enjoyment, and effortless productivity, there has been a significant gap in understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of this phenomenon. Previous research has offered various theories but lacked consensus, particularly regarding the role of focused attention versus the relaxation of executive control in initiating and maintaining flow.

“Flow was first identified and studied by the pioneering psychological scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,” said Kounios. “He defined it as ‘a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’”

The study was driven by the need to reconcile competing theories about the nature of flow. One theory posited that flow might be a hyper-focused state that excludes external distractions, enabling heightened performance. An alternative theory suggested that flow results from a combination of extensive expertise and a deliberate reduction of conscious oversight, allowing for more automatic, intuitive processes to lead.


At the heart of the investigation were thirty-two jazz guitarists, whose brain activities were recorded using high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) while they engaged in musical improvisation tasks. This participant pool was carefully selected to cover a wide spectrum of experience levels, ranging from novices to seasoned professionals, allowing the researchers to examine the impact of expertise on the ability to achieve flow.

The experimental procedure began with each musician performing improvisations to six different jazz lead sheets, which included pre-recorded drum, bass, and piano accompaniments. These musical pieces were specially designed to present an equal level of challenge across all takes while incorporating familiar jazz patterns.

This setup aimed to simulate a live performance environment where musicians could naturally engage in the creative process. Following each improvisation, participants rated the intensity of their flow experience, providing subjective data on their state of immersion and enjoyment during the task.


To objectively evaluate the creative output, the 192 recorded improvisations were reviewed by four jazz experts, who were unaware of the study’s specific research questions to avoid bias. These judges rated each improvisation on creativity, aesthetic appeal, and technical proficiency using the Consensual Assessment Technique. This approach ensured a comprehensive assessment of the improvisations’ quality from both the performers’ and experienced observers’ perspectives.

In analyzing the EEG data, the researchers focused on identifying brain activity patterns associated with high and low flow states. This involved comparing the EEGs of improvisations rated as high-flow against those considered low-flow, while controlling for the musicians’ experience levels. Special attention was given to areas involved in auditory and tactile processing and regions associated with executive control, to test the hypothesis that flow state involves a reduction in conscious oversight (transient hypofrontality).

Moreover, advanced EEG source reconstruction techniques were utilized to pinpoint the neural origins of flow-related activity, offering insights into the large-scale brain networks implicated in creative flow.


The analysis of EEG data revealed that high-flow states, as self-reported by the musicians, were characterized by increased activity in the left-hemisphere regions associated with auditory and tactile processing, which are crucial for musical performance. This suggests that a high level of engagement with the task at a sensory level is a key component of the flow state.

More strikingly, high-flow states were also associated with decreased activity in the superior frontal gyri, a brain region implicated in executive functions and conscious control. This finding aligns with the concept of “transient hypofrontality” – the temporary downregulation of prefrontal cortex activity, theorized to reduce the cognitive load and allow for more fluid and intuitive task execution.

Furthermore, the study differentiated between musicians based on their level of experience, revealing that those with greater experience were more likely to enter high-flow states. This observation underscores the importance of domain-specific expertise as a prerequisite for achieving flow.


Expert musicians exhibited not only more frequent and intense flow experiences but also a distinct neural signature during these states, including reduced activity in the default-mode network (DMN), which is often associated with mind-wandering and self-referential thought processes. The reduction in DMN activity suggests that, for experts, entering a flow state means moving away from introspection and towards a more outward-focused engagement with the task.

Inner views of the left and right sides of the brain showing areas of reduced brain activity when the high-experience musicians were in a high-flow state (compared to a low-flow state). These areas include key nodes of the brain’s default-mode network. (Image provided by John Kounios)

Interestingly, the study also found that the low-experience musicians demonstrated little flow-related brain activity, highlighting the crucial role of expertise in facilitating the flow experience. The researchers propose that achieving flow requires not only the ability to engage deeply with the task at hand but also sufficient mastery over the domain to allow for the “letting go” of conscious control. This mastery enables the specialized neural circuits developed through extensive practice to take over, guiding the creative process more efficiently and intuitively.

“A practical implication of these results is that productive flow states can be attained by practice to build up expertise in a particular creative outlet coupled with training to withdraw conscious control when enough expertise has been achieved,” said Kounios. “This can be the basis for new techniques for instructing people to produce creative ideas.”


Kounios added, “If you want to be able to stream ideas fluently, then keep working on those musical scales, physics problems or whatever else you want to do creatively—computer coding, fiction writing—you name it. But then, try letting go. As jazz great Charlie Parker said, ‘You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.’”

However, the study is not without its limitations. The specificity of the task (jazz improvisation) and the use of EEG, while insightful, may not fully capture the complexities of flow states across different creative domains or provide the spatial resolution to identify all relevant brain activity. Future research could expand the participant pool, explore other creative tasks, and employ methods like fMRI for more detailed brain imaging.

The study, “Creative flow as optimized processing: Evidence from brain oscillations during jazz improvisations by expert and non-expert musicians,” was authored by David Rosen, Yongtaek Oh, Christine Chesebrough, Fengqing (Zoe) Zhang, and John Kounios.

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