Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Flow" and Creativity: Links to the "baby mind" in us all

A few years ago, I wrote a post here about happiness at work, and the concept of "flow" in your work. When you lose yourself in the moment, lose your sense of self-consciousness, you can become more creative and more effective in many types of work. It's also very enjoyable. This is part of what happens when we become immersed in a movie, or meditation, or possibly, in reading a great book. It's what happens with an athlete getting into the zone, or an artist being one with the canvas, the poem or the audience. It's magic.

In the Boston Globe Ideas section today, Jonah Lehrer writes, "Inside the Baby Mind," which looks at the newest understanding of researchers of how babies learn. Their brains are actually much more connected, and have vastly more neurons than adult brains. And it shows in the ways they are open to all the world. While adults "pay attention" with a spot light of attention, babies and toddlers attend to the world with a 360 degree lantern, soaking up everything equally. It makes sense, because they don't know what will be important, so they have to look at every thing. This actually matches the experiences I've had with my own kids and with other small children I've hung around with. When you go to the park or the zoo with a toddler, it's a whole different experience than going with an older child or adults. The article has a wonderful quote:

[Psychologist Alison] Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."
Apparently, our brains begin pruning unnecessary neurons almost from birth. It makes us more efficient, as we begin to learn what we really need to focus on. But while we are really young and don't yet know, we can easily learn multiple languages at once. The world pours in on little babies and toddlers, unfiltered. Those of us who have a few memories left from earliest days, may remember the world as a much more intensely colored, more emotionally rich, more everything-ful place. Apparently children feel and sense things more intensely, which makes it seem particularly outrageous that doctors until the 1970's performed surgery on babies and toddlers without anesthesia under the mistaken impression that they were not really sensing things.

There are many times when it's a good thing to be able to tune out extraneous or overwhelming sensations, and that is what we learn to do as adults. We learn to focus our attention, and to "pay attention," which turns out to mean narrow our focus of attention.
While thinking like an adult is necessary when we need to focus, or when we already know which information is relevant, many situations aren't so clear-cut. In these instances, paying strict attention is actually a liability, since it leads us to neglect potentially important pieces of the puzzle. That's when it helps to think like a baby.

This new understanding of baby cognition, and the peculiar ways in which babies pay attention, is also giving scientists insights into improving the mental functioning of adults. The ability to direct attention, it turns out, doesn't merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions - it can also stifle the imagination. Sometimes, the mind performs best when we don't try to control it.

A recent brain scanning experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation - they were playing a specially designed keyboard in a brain scanner - showed dramatically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex. It was only by "deactivating" this brain area that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry. But it also resembles the thought process of a young child, albeit one with musical talent. Baudelaire was right: "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."

The immaturity of the baby brain comes with another advantage: utter absorption in the moment. The best evidence for this comes from brain scans of adult subjects as they watched an engrossing Clint Eastwood movie. The experiment, led by Rafael Malach at Hebrew University, found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, as their prefrontal areas were suppressed. At the same time, areas in the back of the brain associated with visual perception were turned on. As Gopnik notes, this mental state - the experience of being captivated by entertainment - is, in many respects, a fleeting reminder of what it feels like to be a young child. "You are incredibly aware of what's happening - your experiences are very vivid - and yet you're not self-conscious at all," she says. "You're not thinking about anything but what's on the screen."

But it's not just the movie theater that transports us back to a newborn state of mind, in which we're fully immersed in the moment. Gopnik notes that a number of other situations, from Zen meditation to the experience of natural beauty, can also lead to states of awareness so intense that the self seems to disappear. "This is the same ecstatic feeling that the Romantic poets were always writing about," she says. "It's seeing the world in a grain of sand."
There is more in the article, and I urge you to read it in full. But I have pulled out portions here to focus (hah! how adult of me) on the portions that are looking at how letting go of the prefrontal cortex, relaxing that adult portion of the brain in some way, brings us to a more creative, "flow" state.

The image is the same I used in the first post on "flow," a photo of Sweet Creek, from

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