Modern Film Composer Blog

16 Jun 2015

The Science of Hacking Creativity and Motivation: Part 2


The 4 Stages of Creative Flow


For many years I struggled with motivation and inspiration when creating music. The brain-fog and listlessness that holds many composers back from creating great work was upon me like a thick cloud. A couple of years ago I decided enough was enough and that instead of sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike I would take the power into my own hands and find out how to MAKE myself feel motivated and inspired. To my surprise I found thousands of pages of empowering legitimate scientific research on the topic. In Part 1 we looked at the pre-cursors to a creative flow state according to Stephen Kotler the director of the “Flow Genome” project, a large-scale scientific study of flow-states. Now let’s look at how to trigger a flow state in the 4 stages of Flow he identifies:


Stage 1: “Struggle”

Flow is essentially the process of accessing vast swathes of information in our brain and creating new connections and patterns between those data-points. Our brains are super-computers which can crunch data at a phenomenal rate, but how do we make them work at full capacity? The first step to achieving a creative impulse is “Struggle”. This is the process of getting as much relevant information into our head as possible at one time – to the point of overload.

This method has been utilised by creative geniuses in many different spheres whether or not they are aware of the research that supports the technique. For example chess Grand-Master Josh Waitzkin describes a process where-by every night he will spend time blasting his mind with information on a complex problem he is working on to the point of breakdown, he will then allow his mind to completely relax and go blank. Invariably he will wake up with the solution clear in his mind the next morning. Over-night his sub-conscious mind works on the problem. This method gives us some insight into the process of “finding inspiration” and how we can make it work.

In the composition process this means we need to absorb vast amounts of inspirational content as raw material for our brain to work on.

“He who has the best record collection writes the best songs.” – Keith Richards

Kotler mentions that the key is to go past the point where it feels comfortable. The physical goal in doing this is to actually release Cortisol the stress hormone into your body. It’s counterintuitive but this prepares your brain for flow. You need to overload yourself. Think of yourself as a surfer frantically paddling to catch a wave before gliding into it. Listen to music in the genre you intend to compose in, watch video clips that inspire you, read, whatever it takes, just be sure to lose yourself in the material. Most people do not push far enough in this stage. It’s like running against a bungee cord, you need to push so far that it triggers a violent jolt back. You need to load up your mind with inspiration to the point of overwhelm. If you find visual media inspirational consume films and art with an insatiable hunger – now you have an excuse! Then when you feel that your mind is fully saturated proceed to the next step…

Stage 2. “Relaxation”

let go

As I mentioned in Part 1 Mad Men character Don Draper advises his colleague to think creative problems through intensely and then let the mind go blank and wait for the answer to come through. This is the same advice that Kotler gives based on his research. Shutting off the critical and self-analysing thinking mind allows the creative patterns of data being drawn by the unconscious mind to come through and spur creative ideas. When entering a creative flow-state researchers observed that Nitrous Oxide is released in the body. This is interesting because Nitrous Oxide essentially clears the body of stress hormones and the brain activity shifts into an alpha wave (relaxed, daydream) pattern. This means that all the Cortisol built up during the struggle phase is washed from your system suddenly leaving you in an unusually relaxed Alpha Wave brain state highly conducive to creativity.

Along with the reduced activity in the parts of the brain responsible for conscious thinking and self-criticism discussed in Part 1 these physiological shifts indicate the sub-conscious mind taking over your experience. After pre-loading you need to completely cut your attention from the task. This means taking time out. Go for a walk. Meditate. Do anything that releases your mind completely and allows inspiration to bubble up from the subconscious. Don’t struggle any further, allow the ideas to come through.

A recent Stanford study confirmed that going for a walk does indeed dramatically help creative thinking. This phenomenon has been anecdotally recognised by creative thinkers for centuries “I have my greatest ideas in the shower/on the toilet/when out walking/in the middle of the night” What is the common feature of these stories we’ve heard over and over? They were taking a break from the task and allowing their mind to drift for a minute.

Stage 3. “Flow”


When you feel the inspiration come through get to the studio and work uninterrupted for as long as you can. Remember that any form of distraction switches your thinking brain back on and can interrupt flow.

Stage 4. “Recovery”

Flow states tax your body and require recovery time to replenish neurotransmitters. Here are some ways you can re-charge to experience flow again:

-Sleep well. Your brain simply won’t have the neurotransmitter resources to induce flow if you don’t sleep and replenish them. Sacrifice sleep and you sacrifice the quality of your work.

-The very neurotransmitter elements that facilitate your state of inspiration are created from the food you eat. You need sources of natural amino acids from your diet:  L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine to create dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. You need sources of Tryptophan to create serotonin. You get all of these from adequate protein intake but sometimes I take supplemental forms of all 3 of these along with Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C which facilitate the conversion. In the same way you pre-load your brain with creative inspiration you can preload with the pre-cursors to required neurotransmitters. Consult your Doctor before taking any of these, L-phenylalanine is very toxic to some people.

When you start to come down from the high of a flow state don’t fight it and become frustrated. Accept that flow is a cyclical 4 stage process and you have to work with the waves. Get straight back to pre-loading ready to catch the next wave coming.

Hacking the Creative Process: A Protocol for Flow


Everyone’s creative process is highly personal and individual. Understanding the scientific principles of flow can give us some guidelines that help us understand our own creative method and make it more effective. Here’s how I have implemented all that we have discussed into creating my own creative method that regularly gets me into flow. Try using this method as a template for your own flow-state protocol. It may seem contrived, but I would rather have a highly contrived method and regularly feel focused and creative than sit around in a fog for days on end. I can regularly work for 8-10 hours using this method in complete focus only taking bathroom breaks, I often don’t even eat during this time,  it has changed my work-life in a profound way.

When Stephen Kotler was asked whether he has found any way to reliably artificially induce a flow state he had a very unusual answer. He referred to the “Hippy Speedball” which is a ritual extreme sports athletes often perform before engaging in their sport to help them achieve a flow state. It’s utterly ridiculous and I don’t recommend it but it basically induces a similar combination of neuro-chemicals as a flow state. They basically do the following:

Sprint until it is painful and then stop to get an endorphin release. Immediately down 2 or more espressos and take a bong hit to get a rush of Dopamine and focused attention along with Anandamide from the THC. Hit the slope.

Ski athletes use it all the time. … If you mix these cocktails, this particular cocktail, with risk, with physical risk you get that big dopamine push, it’s tied in an instant flow state. – Stephen Kotler

Here’s a personal method that has worked powerfully for me which doesn’t involve illegal substances. I’m putting myself out there because this is a bizarre method, but it should be. Your creative process should be your own and will likely make no sense to anyone else. It could all be nonsense – there are scientific reasons to believe it makes sense – but at the end of the day it gives me 8-10 hours of productive work and that’s all that matters. Here is my method, I hope it gives you inspiration to develop your own:

1. Create Struggle. Set Goals and Build Cortisol:

For 15 minutes I take in as much information and inspiration as I can physically cope with. I recently wrote some Egyptian music for a documentary, I listened to Egyptian music on repeat while watching documentaries and time-lapses of Egyptian scenery. Interviews with Egyptologists, checking out Egyptian art, you name it. This gives the brain raw material to work with but doesn’t in and of itself trigger flow. If you can do this over a longer time period leading up to the work: even better. I then write down a clear creative goal I want to achieve.

2. Create a State of Endorphin-Induced Mental and Physical Relaxation:

You want your body to release Nitrous Oxide into your system which flushes the Cortisol away inducing a state of relaxed attention. The easiest way to do this is physical exertion (also known as “runner’s high”). I do press-ups until it becomes painful and I can’t continue.

3. Trigger Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Epinephrine release :

During the resulting endorphin rush of the physical extertion I quickly consume 2 large cups of coffee (releases dopamine) with 1000mg of L-Tyrosine and 500g L-phenylalanine (natural amino acid precursors to the required neuro-chemistry for flow).

4. Distract the Pre-Frontal Cortex (Analytical Mind) and Activate Creative :

Think about the time you felt the most inspired, what were you experiencing/listening to/seeing/feeling? Re-create than moment and embody it with complete focus as a form of meditation. No logical thinking, just experience the moment and get carried off into flow.

The way I do this is to put on my headphones and listen to heavy music with complex rhythms and harmonies while watching time-lapses of nature on repeat and allow my mind to go blank. I get absorbed in the music and images as a kind of meditation. This achieves 2 things: The images and music distract my critical thinking mind (the pre-frontal cortex). At the same time I find this combination of music and images highly inspirational which activates the more creative centres of the brain. I inhabit the rhythms and melodies, experiencing them in a relaxed but intense way until I feel a huge rush of inspiration.

3. Work freely without Distraction or Self-Criticism

After 3 or 4 minutes I can feel inspiration coming like a storm rolling over the mountains. The more I relax into it the stronger it becomes and I can work for 8 to 10 hours solid on a piece. In the first part of the flow state I recommend going nowhere near a computer. Any hindrance (computer crashes etc.) to getting your ideas out of your head will knock you out of flow. I just record ideas on piano into my phone at this point.

Refuse to leave the quality and quantity of your work down to chance. Take charge and do whatever it takes to find your personal triggers for flow.

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