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How 4 Unique States of Mind Lead to Creative Flow

The fascinating psychology of creatives explained

When psychologist Csikszentmihalyi invented the concept of flow as an optimal experience, he described it as a complex and intricate process.

Individuals in flow find themselves in a tension between their action and their goals, a tension just elastic enough to motivate them in their work.

This same singularity defines creative people, as they swing between opposing personality traits.

According to Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create, there are no single psychological factors that explain creativity, resulting from diverse and contradictory profiles.

An exhaustive description of creative people shows behaviors that go to the extremes of human emotions and personality, that they synthesize in their works.

Varied attitudes such as both serious and playful behaviors, mental wandering combined with focused work, intuitive but also rationally based thinking, solitude-seeking behaviors while finding inspiration in others, are the sign of high-creativity.

Here’s how by drawing inspiration from these 4 attitudes you can also reach creative flow.


Being Both Playful and Serious

When children spot objects that interest them, they quickly play with them passionately, building, and reconstructing them to find new meaning in their environment.

At times, they may seem so immersed in their world, that they seem to take their imaginative role very seriously.

Although creative people no longer have the same childlike innocence, they aim for the same enjoyment for playing, spending hours on seemingly unimportant details, or in imaginative worlds far from reality.

They are seeking pleasure in creating environments and rules where their imagination can flourish.

Nothing describes this attitude of the creator better than Shigaro Myamoto, promoting the values of exploration and curiosity through its franchises of world-famous video games (The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros, Metroid…).

Miyamoto has always sought to make seemingly serious tasks fun and playful, finding in the game resources of unsuspected creativity.

He embodies what other creatives also represent: an almost obsessive way to create an imaginary world they can explore. They find their flow in this state of play framed by the rigor of creation.

Artists like the sculptor Claes Oldenburg, find inspiration for his work in his imaginary world “Neubern”, an imaginary island between Africa and South America his child mind fantasized, giving him the idea “of parallel worlds that obey the rules of his fantasies’’.

Creatives find dedication in their work in the roles and the worlds that they give themselves to build. Imagine the characters, figures, and world of your dream and creative flow will come to you!


Entering Dreaming and Hard-Working State

Dreaming and mental wandering have often been devalued compared to the productive and fertile work of waking states of consciousness.

But artists and scientists increasingly recognize the importance of day and night elusive thinking in the creative process.

Distracted states such as walking, showering, daydreaming, or relaxing are creative incubation moments. As your mind is occupied by no task, you let your thoughts and emotions of the moment expand.

By relaxing your focus, you let your thoughts wander deeply and make more unexpected connections between ideas.

That’s what artists like John Lennon understood, promoting the powers of the imagination through his song “Imagine”. Himself was inspired by the results of his daydreaming sessions and its reflections about intuitive thinking, giving him the song “#9 dream”.

“That’s what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I’m not putting it down, it’s just what it is, but I just sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I’d had.”

Paul McCartney also composed his famous melody of “Yesterday” after a dream he had at night:

“I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought” Hey, I don’t know this tune — Or do I ? It was like a jazz melody. I went to the piano and found the chords to it….”

Meanwhile, thinkers like Kant or Charles Darwin needed their regular daytime strolls through their villages in Königsberg, Prussia, or Kent, England, to rearrange their thoughts.

What is paradoxical is that these moments of cognitive relaxation are not effortless: they need you to work on focusing your thoughts and attention.

Open-monitoring meditation practices, for example, encourage the mind to open its thoughts by training its attention. Open-mindedness arises then from both processes of relaxing and focusing your attention.

To enter a state of creative flow, learn to move from more dreamy and imaginary states to states of intense reflective work.


Relying on Intuitive and Rational Thinking

After long investigations into the synthesis of 35 specific chemical components, Hofmann came across a new reaction. At first, the animal on which he tested the substance became a little excitable, which from a scientific point of view meant nothing special. Yet, at that moment the chemist had a strange premonition.

Testing the synthesis on himself, he received colorful and eccentric sensation combined with a feeling of euphoria as he cycled home. That’s when he discovered the first psychoactive substance in history.

This combination in this story between rational research and intuitive discoveries usually forms what is the artistic and scientific discovery process.

Many artists have already praised a deeper state of consciousness, such as Henry James searching for a new way of life, while others promoted more analytical skills.

What Kounios and Beeman, two researchers, found is that the “Eureka effect” of discoveries was formed of 2 processes leading to the formation of insights.

Capturing the brains of participants during particularly complex word association exercises, they showed that the brain must go through a state of relaxation that allows the identification of non-obvious perspectives or associations.

The best minds on these tests started from a state of extreme observation to a state of critical and flexible thinking where they took a different perspective on the problem.

Creative problem solving, therefore, requires an increase in your analytical and thinking skills as well as your critical and imaginative abilities: you need to appeal to both your convergent and divergent thinking.


Finding Yourself Alone But not Lonely

When Marcel Proust retired from Parisian society for years, it was to write in silence his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

But writing patiently in his lair, he felt not completely lonely: memories of the eccentric social gatherings in 20th century Paris kept haunting his mind.

Writers in particular know the loneliness necessary for production and writing, but they also know the importance of help and collaboration among writers and inspiration from social situations.

Creative people need both of these resources: a rich and full social environment, and moments of extreme isolation, where nothing can disturb them. They derive as much from their inner, deep reflections as from social interactions.

Driven both by a curiosity for people and a desire to get away from them, many writers have tried to find the balance between productive isolation and mutual support with the community of other writers.

You may know that Henry David Thoreau, the radical thinker, and writer, has isolated himself in the Walden Woods of Massachusetts. But he was not completely alone. He had formed around him a strong and authentic community of individuals repressed from society and who found refuge in this remote part of the world.

Hemmingway, who said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life”, also recognized the importance of his wife’s presence in inspiring his writings. So have numerous artists who valued the help and support of their relatives.

Do what the artists do not what they say: find enough solitude to be mentally present without keeping yourself from the world, and you may reach creative flow.

Your turn to increase your creativity by embracing these opposing traits!

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