Study reveals brain benefits of being “in the zone”

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Goldsmiths researchers have found that musicians experience positive changes in their brain responses after they are “in the zone” or in a state of flow.

A participant from the study playing flow-inducing music

The study, a first of its kind, explores the after-effects of this deeply immersive state on the brain, providing new insights into the benefits of creative flow in music.

A team led by Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya, in collaboration with Dr. Jasmine Tan, now at the Harvard Medical School, conducted a study involving 48 musicians. The research focused on analysing brain activity immediately after the musicians experienced a state of flow.

Flow is state where individuals are fully immersed in an activity, feeling a mix of focus, and enjoyment. Flow often leads to peak experience, commonly associated with expert and creative performance.

Musicians often report experiencing flow whilst playing, however, our understanding of the brain activity during this state remains underexplored, due to challenges in artificially producing a true flow state in a laboratory. The research developed a unique method to study flow in a realistic setting.

In the study, musicians played pieces that either induced flow or did not, allowing for a comparison of brain responses. The researchers analysed the brain responses immediately following the musical performances. 

The results found that following flow-inducing performances, there were heightened brain activities, with upper alpha and beta frequency bands, especially in the frontal regions of the brain. The activity in the upper alpha band is linked to creative thinking and problem-solving, while the beta band is often associated with heightened focus and alertness.

The study found that these effects were even more pronounced in expert musicians, suggesting that their brains might be more finely tuned to reap the benefits of flow.

Further, frontal brain regions exerted more influence on the activities in the temporal and parietal brain regions. This effect was more notable in expert musicians who experienced flow more often. This increased information flow is linked to enhanced cognitive control, attentional engagement, and the suppression of irrelevant information.

Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya said: “These specific set of findings provide exciting perspectives on how flow states could impact musicians' brain. Importantly, our study introduces a practical method by which genuine flow states can be studied in the lab. With future research, it may be possible to empirically understand the nature of peak performance and enjoyment in various activities." 

By providing the first glimpse of the afterglow of flow in brain activities, this study paves the way for a deeper understanding of the art and science of peak creative performance, and its impacts on overall well-being.

The After-Glow of Flow: Neural Correlates of Flow in Musicians was published in the Creativity Research Journal on 22 November 2023