Archive for February, 2010

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offered the audience the benefit of his expertise in the area of psychology called “positive psychology”. Specifically, Csikszentmihalyi gave a lecture on his theory of the concept he calls, “Flow”. According to Csikszetmihalyi, Flow is the mental state one encounters in which the person is fully immersed in what they are doing, to the point that all things outside of this activity are unnoticed by the participant. Analogies of the term “flow” can be found in the vernaculars of people who play sports, and musicians. Sayings like, “in the groove”, “in the zone”, and of course, “going with the flow”, automatically come to mind. In all these, as well as Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow”, we find that people report a focus of all concentration on the activity in question; one loses track of their surroundings, other people, and all sense of time while in the state of “flow”.  Csikszentmihalyi believes that Flow is the secret to happiness that most people fail to achieve. According to the speaker, this is so because of where we look for our happiness. Csikszenthmihalyi claims that monetary success alone will not make one happy. According to Czikszenthmihalyi, many people believe money will make one happy. But his research and interviews of successful people has led him to believe that one can be truly happy if they simply have the means to support themselves. To support this contention, Csikszenthmihalyi points to interviews he conducted with an anonymous multimillionaire. According to the subject interviewed, he does not measure his success by how much money he himself makes. Rather, he finds happiness in the deal, itself. The act of selecting the right stocks, and sharing this information with others who also benefit from his expertise is how the subject measures his own success.While I am unsure how Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” theory relates directly to creativity, it seems fairly apparent that the speaker has found a means of finding happiness through immersion in an activity that one both enjoys, and that also provides some level of challenge for the participant.


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First off I thoroughly enjoyed both meeting Csikszentmihalyi in the morning and his presentation at night. He is very insightful yet down to earth which made conversing with him all the more enjoyable. Coming from the field of video games, Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow is something that is used throughout the industry as many games are trying to put the player in a state of flow by balancing the challenge the game is providing with the skill set the game has taught thus far in a pleasurable way.

From a happiness perspective I think this accurately describes the state a person enters when they are deeply enjoying something. My problem though is I don’t think this accurately reflects the moments of creativity. I think that there is a second type of flow that is achieved in the low challenge, low skill “apathy” column. Many times I’ve been in this state and still meet many of the criteria of flow outlined such as timeless, focused, etc. In terms of creativity I’ve also come up with my best ideas while doing things listed in this category such as taking a shower. In fact there is other evidence supporting this notion of having creative “Eureka” moments in this state. Kekule staring at a fire, Einstein working in a patent office, are both examples of people coming up with these ah-ha “Eureka” moments while doing something that puts them, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s chart, in the apathy quadrant. I’ve also been in a state of high level flow while not engaged in a creative act at all.

Csikszentmihalyi Flow Graph

An Alternative Flow Graph

At one point Csikszentmihalyi briefly showed a chart with a diagonal area for flow caught between anxiety and boredom. I think this chart might actually be a better representation of flow in the creative process because it allows for the creative process to occur at any point as long as there’s a balance of challenge and skill, not just at high levels of each.

In regards to my creative project another element of difficult is that games strive to reach this state of flow which may be an element of the creative process, but it is not about the act of discovery and how the cultivation of ideas work. Csikszentmihalyi’s idea on flow and the connection to video games is almost in a state of contradiction with what I’m trying to do by teaching the cultivation of ideas.

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Do not expect a damn thing; do it because you love it. This statement sums up Csikszentimihalyi’s idea of what life is all about, flow. Mihaly Csikszentinihaly was the most articulate speaker of the series. He spoke very clearly on a subject everyone can relate to, living one’s life in a world filled with distractions and finding happiness. For Mihaly, happiness came from creative effort.

He set out the different dimensions of flow and what conditions fostered it. First, “attention”, a dimension of flow defined by Csikszentimihalyi as “a focus on a limited stimulus field,” must be maintained to reach flow. He explained, “there is full concentration, complete involvement;” therefore, attention is the key to happiness since the remaining dimensions of flow: actions and awareness, freedom from worrying, self-consciousness disappears, time disappears, and the experience becomes its own reward, require attention.

Perhaps, this is the cause of unhappiness- no one pays attention anymore. Everybody is constantly distracted and multitasking instead of getting lost in the creative act. Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi reminded the audience that attention is limited processing.  It is impossible to concentrate on more than two things at once. Regardless of what the millennials will tell you, it is impossible. Mr. Csikszentimihalyi said, “attention is the medium in which life manifests itself,” so since “everything in life requires attention,” one chooses what to pay attention to in one’s life; therefore, life is a choice. When someone is constantly choosing to focus her attention on short spurts of instant gratification by googling her latest desire, will she ever be happy?

Technology is a wonderful tool. At least, sometimes it is, but when one is constantly spending her time and attention on the internet by surfing through all of the shops, friends, Chocolate Rains, dancing babies, and burping pandas, she is not creating; moreover, according to Csikszentimihalyi, she is stuck somewhere between apathy and relaxation. This would help explain the high depression rate, or at least, the huge reliance on antidepressants in America.

The other dimensions of flow require a loss of self.

How else can someone let go of herself than from the creative act? Csikszentimihalyi mentioned yoga and meditation.   Meditation and yoga each has all of the same dimensions of flow. Is there a connection between Western ideas towards creativity and Eastern spiritual practices?

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Csíkszentmihályi’s lecture was not difficult to understand but seems more difficult to apply.  In the sense of understanding his theme(s), one can easily recall experiences that we all have encountered as “flow-like” and layer them with his interpretation within positivist psychology.  From my perspective, I would like to look at two areas in which his theory can be applied: athletics, specifically tennis, and writing poetry.

Tennis: Since I teach tennis as a profession, I began by thinking about whether I have ever been in the flow, and I found myself considering analogous ideas in sports psychology, specifically getting into the “zone” or mental positivist state.  This seems to me to be inherited from Csíkszentmihályi’s theory of flow.  When approaching an athlete with certain physical and mental demands, one must incorporate some “ritual” or practice patterns that will enhance performance.  But this does not necessarily guarantee that a player will choose the proper position on the tennis court or even imagine or “project” future events or determined positions on the tennis court.  However, this does seem similar to his discussion concerning chess players and the like that see no roof or other outside influence as they participate at a high level of concentration.  This intrigues me.

First off, if what he says is true, that athletes, chess players, scientists, etc. all have can be in this flow state, then a real dilemma comes up: namely, how does this mental, creative, concentration enable someone who is in a non-physically demanding activity (such as chess) compare to a professional athlete (tennis player in this case) who is not only fighting mental pressure but physical exhaustion?  Is Csíkszentmihályi arguing that this level of concentration is only mental without regard to physical exertion? 

A major problem I come into contact with is getting tennis players at the tournament-level to choose the proper shot, the “creative” shot in a given situation when they are tired and have been playing for several hours in a competitive match.  According to Csíkszentmihályi, the flow occurs during a state of concentration where tunnel vision occurs, a kind of separation from the world; however, this is problematic with my experience of the player engaging with the other player to feed off of their rhythm.  I think Csíkszentmihályi’s idea, applied to a tennis environment, could yield some fascinating results, but I feel also that it could be limited by the physical demands that remove a person from that zone of concentration or flow.

Secondly, I want to visit his idea of poets that are in the flow.  I remember from the lecture, he said poets are in a state that resembles a stream of conciousness where all they have are emotions and a kind of sensory perception that is related to the page.  I am very interested in this since I write poetry and run an online literary journal.  It seems to me that the flow is best used with poets that have a pre-determined a position or subject matter to be expressed.  However, I have read several interviews, two come to mind, where poets are either extremely interested in editing their works once they have been drafted (WH Auden) and the other type that never edits (Sexton).  However, I find it difficult to distinguish the act of flow as only a first draft kind of experience.  Are we to see flow as the initial conditions that predicate expression and applicable also to repeated interpretations of that art form (revisiting the “flow work” in poetic revision)?

It appears as if the creative process can be hindered by too much thinking that can remove the flow experience but, at the same time, a stream of consciousness model could also produce work that is not critical enough, or is lacking intellectual purpose or cohesive, creative, construction.  Maybe Csíkszentmihályi’s model applied to poetry does not give enough emphasis on preparation for the flow process to emerge.  Is this an emergent property?

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          Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow” concept refers to a kind of “Optimal experience”. He thinks people are most happy when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. According to his study, some of the happiest, most creative people find joy simply in the pursuit of a job. The metaphor of flow is one that many artiest, scientists, athletes and CEOs in his research have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Whether it is called “being in the zone,” “ecstasy,” or “aesthetic rapture,” it is the full involvement of flow that makes for excellence in life.

          To me, it seems Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow” theory emphasizes a balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. In his study, the various combinations of skills and challenge in the activities undertaken result differently. Both skill level and challenge level must reach to a fairly high level to produce the state of flow; if both skill and challenge are low, then apathy will be generated. I find this theory very convincing in many cases, but in some other cases, it does not always apply. Csíkszentmihályi was only a child when the WWII took place. He is an optimist for sure since the war did not seem to affect him in any negative way. But many of the people of his time, especially the poets with the post-war temper, do not seem to be as happy as he is. The winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award,the Bollingen Prize such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath to name a few, were either institutionalized or suicidal. Their skill levels were high. Regardless of what the challenge level they had, according to Csíkszentmihályi’s chart, they should reach at least one of the three, relaxation, control or flow. But it does not seem to me that they fell into these categories.  On the other hand, I am not sure the low skill level and the low challenge level combination really results apathy.  Among the happiest people I have seen in the States, some are blue-collar workers such as construction workers in my neighborhood.  Their tasks may not be as challenging, and their skill level may not be as high, yet with music and beer, their smiles are as bright as the sunshine.

          However, I do like the feeling to be in “the flow”. The sense of ecstasy, great inner clarity, sense of serenity and timelessness, are the highest state of creativity. As Csíkszentmihályi pointed out, “Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.” The state of “flow” seems to be an ideal state of creativity we want to pursue, but we can not always get it.

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Csikszentmihalyi was perhaps the most charismatic lecturer this semester. However, he was somewhat toned down during the morning meeting which made his performance during the evening lecture (which was filled to capacity) that much more animated.

Everyone has experienced Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of FLOW, which is partly why I think this lecture was such a success. The FLOW discussion- how we can be focused yet relaxed simultaneously, was very interesting. During his FLOW presentation Csikszentmihalyi displayed a model which more or less associated activities with (I know I am not being clear) emotional responses. If memory serves me, watching the television was paired with apathy…to which Dr. Frome voiced his concern during the Q & A. I felt similarly to Frome and feel very connected to certain films and television programs. I wonder where playing video games would fall on this diagram. I think that certain video games are very conducive for FLOW-like symptoms…the focus, the time lapse etc. However, this act isn’t necessarily creative…for that matter neither is watching television.

The article Cortical Regions Involved in the Generation of Musical Structures during Improvisation in Pianists I found particularly challenging to follow. I could not find a point of entry. Csikszentmihalyi briefly discussed this during  his presentation in such a way to create a massive “a ha” moment for me.  I would also be interested in seeing similar tests performed on people during different activities…perhaps playing video games or even simply working on a computer.

Csikszentmihalyi’s article Creativity and Responsibility was incredibly fascinating to me, perhaps because I agree with many of his assumptions. He writes, “An extremely intransigent sense of responsibility is a distinctive trait of creative persons. They feel an almost religious respect for human accomplishments of the past, at least within the domain of their interest and activity.” I find this statement to be overwhelmingly true among most creative people I know. For example, if two poets meet one will undoubtedly ask the other “who do you read?” Musicians are similar- are you a Stones fan or a Beatles? I love the line “Whenever they can, the try to combine the achievements of the past with the possibilities of the future, and express them in the present.” This line pretty much sums up the Arts and Humanities dept at UTD.

Later in this article he writes, “The responsibility felt by creative persons involves integrity, honesty, excellence in the performance of their task–qualities that are not always foremost among conventionally moral people.” At first I feared Csikszentmihalyi would turn this into some revolutionary artist archetype discussion. However, this turned out not to be the case. I did begin to think about what role morality takes in artistry (if any). I think this is a question I am going to ask my interviewees during my podcast. Take for example, the Body Works series. There are many people who find this series to be grotesque, exploitive and (to some degree) blasphemous. There are plenty of works that are controversial just for the controversy, however, I don’t find this to be the case here.  I have been taught that the second you start to think about the reaction of your audience is when your work will suffer. However, as a human being are you obligated to protect the feelings of your audience? To what degree should we censor ourselves?

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I found the morning meeting and evening lecture with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s both interesting and entertaining. I completely get the “flow” concept, at least as far as it was explained to us. I’ve experienced that sucked-in, all-consuming focus quite a few times in my life, and I consciously strive for it on a fairly regular basis in my writing routine (unfortunately, the time I actually experience it is proportionally low). Admittedly, when I’ve experienced flow, I’ve been at my most focused, although perhaps not my most creative.

Where I have concerns about Csikszentmihalyi’s argument is in his definition of creativity. The originality portion is fine. Where he lost me, and I asked him about this in the morning meeting, was whether or not he differentiated between a personal creativity and a more “commercial” or “disciplinary” creativity. He insisted that creativity required the recognition of gate keepers.

I have to believe that creativity is a much more individualized process. Take Emily Dickenson as an example. She is universally considered a master poet, having done things no one prior had attempted and addressing topics with her writing that was groundbreaking in her field. While she did enclose poems in correspondences with companions, her poetry collection (nearly 18oo poems) was not discovered until after her death.  If her poetry had never been discovered and “graded” by gate keepers, would not Dickenson still have been exceptionally creative?

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