Zen and the Art of Riffing

Q: What did the Zen master say to the hotdog vendor?

A: “Make me one with everything…”


Central to the premise of this old joke is the Zen notion of reaching a higher level of consciousness, where one’s sense of self dissipates, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the universe. This is pretty heady stuff for many raised in the western thought tradition, where metrics are king, and we’re taught from a young age that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.

So what do jazz players and Zen masters have in common?

I’m sure there’s a pun in here somewhere, but the truth is, they may share a lot, according to Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb.

Around 2008, Limb began doing experiments with jazz pianists, trying to understand what was happening in their brains during musical improvisation. Limb had them improvise music while lying in an fMRI; the tool of choice for many neuroscientists. It’s a machine that measures blood flow to a given brain area. Increased blood flow suggests activity, and so the current thought is that the fMRI is the best window we have into what the brain is up to at a given moment.

Limb observed that when a jazz player got into the groove of an improv (in other words, when they reached something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow), blood flow seemed to decrease in an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or dorsolateral PFC), and increase in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The dorsolateral PFC is where your inner critic resides. It helps to control your impulses, monitor behavior, and analyze your actions.

Another area of the brain that helps keep tabs on you is the superior frontal gyrus, or SFG. It’s responsible for self awareness. Your inhibitions serve the purpose of keeping you from acting in ways that might otherwise get you in trouble. Essentially, your “good angel” doesn’t sit on your shoulder like in the cartoons; it lives in your brain’s SFG.

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, author Steven Kotler cites a 2006 Israeli study that says when people are deeply immersed in a task, from sex to playing cards to climbing a mountain, their superior frontal gyrus begins to deactivate.

Balancing your dorsolateral PFC and SFG, your medial PFC is home to self expression. This part of the brain fosters a sort of ungoverned creativity, where rules are more like general guidelines, and impulse and action rule supreme.

So in theory, Kotler says, as the dorsolateral PFC and SFG quiet down and the medial PFC ramps up, there is a trade-off: less energy for analytical cognition and more energy for concentration and focus. In other words, less thinking, more doing.

Concentration and focus is at the heart of flow state. Without scrutiny, action becomes spontaneous and in the moment.

Is there a word to describe the ramping down of the dorsolateral PFC as cognition takes a backseat to instinct? Yes: hypofrontality. Another way to put it is that loss of your sense of self. It’s when the jazz player has the sense of being one with that piano or horn, a single entity from which the music seems to spring forth.

This is the essential definition of the flow state, where a cocktail of neurochemicals acts like a temporary SWAT team, invading your brain and taking control. Norepinephrine increases blood flow and focus. Dopamine generates an increase in connections. Endorphins kick in to minimize pain and promote a euphoric feeling, while Anandamide promotes lateral thinking.

Anandamide may be the least well-known of these chemicals, but it’s certainly not the least important. Lateral thinking is what allows your brain to draw unusual connections and reach surprising ideas. It’s a basic tenant of any improv; or at least, any improv that’s interesting to watch.

The end result is a flow state of altered consciousness. It’s taken western science and the fMRI to finally catch up, measure and confirm what Zen masters and jazz players already experientially understood for years.

Apparently ‘make me one with everything’ has implications far beyond the hotdog stand.

Hacking Flow

In sports, it’s called being in the zone.

I’m talking about those moments when self vanishes, time seems to slow down, and you are operating with maximum confidence. A sense of calm pervades, even though you might be surrounded by a frenzy of activity. Your focus intensifies and your actions and decisions seem to meld.

This is the psychological state known as flow, researched and pushed into the spotlight by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You might know what flow looks like from the outside if you’ve ever experienced a great jazz player riffing, or a skilled comedian doing improvisation.

And you probably know how flows feels if you meditate. If you’re in sales, it’s those times when you and your customer seem to be synced up in perfect harmony. A writer experiencing flow has the sense that the words on the page are being dictated by some outside source. When you and your best friend are so deeply engaged in conversation that an hour feels like minutes, it’s likely you’ve put each other into a flow state.

Runners, sky divers, surfers, and students engaged in deep academic pursuit are all secret or not-so-secret flow junkies.

Flow is big business. It’s fair to say that professional sports is really a giant flow industry produced for our viewing pleasure. It gives meaning to our lives, separating out the high points of experience from the everyday mundane.

So is there a way to hack flow, to trigger a flow experience? In Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he suggests the following strategy:

1. Find something you’re passionate about and establish a clear goal for improvement.

2. Give yourself a hunk of unbroken time for maximum concentration and focus.

3. Find mentors and coaches: expert input is a key for good progress.

4. Push yourself to the edges of your abilities.

Push yourself, but don’t shove yourself. Kotler reports that a quest for a 4% improvement in any skill, compounded over time, will achieve incredible results.  It’s this kind of incremental growth that is an essential building block of progress. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is often self-defeating.

Flow is an ephemeral thing: easy to recognize, hard to pin down. In any given moment, there’s no surefire recipe for getting there. But by following Kotler’s steps, you can at least point yourself in the right direction. With a little practice, you could find yourself with a passport to the zone.

Mind Wandering, or Getting Your Einstein On

Does your mind tend to wander? Most people believe that their minds wander about 10% of the time. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara put that figure at more like 30%.  When engaged in well-rehearsed tasks like driving a car on a wide-open highway, it’s estimated that mind wandering can be as high as 70%.

In her book How to Get People to Do Stuff, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk makes the important distinction between mind wandering and daydreaming.

According to Weinschenk, daydreaming involves an aspect of fantasy, like imagining you’ve been asked to star in the next Hunger Games flick opposite Jennifer Lawrence, or you’ve just won the lottery.

Mind wandering occurs when your subconscious brain is engaged in a habituated activity, like driving, and at the same time you’re thinking about some other task or wrestling with some other problem.

Doing one thing while your brain focuses on something else might sound an awful lot like multi-tasking. However, the key to multitasking is performing multiple simultaneous conscious activities. In fact, scientists haven’t definitively proven true multitasking even exists. Humans seem to lack the cognitive firepower to pull off multiple independent-thinking operations at the same time.

What feels like multitasking is actually the brain flipping back and forth between separate mental processes, but because of the speed of the flipping, you have the illusion of synchronicity. Psychologists call this “task switching.” It helps to explain a common downside to this behavior, what’s sometimes called the 50/50 rule: when you try to do two things at once, both tasks tend to take 50% longer and involve 50% more mistakes.

So mind wandering is not multitasking or daydreaming. Mind wandering, according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara, is tied to creativity.  Weinschenk notes that the ability to perform a rote task while mind wandering and, more specifically, to switch on this mental meandering at will is “the hallmark of the most creative people.”

There are numerous stories of great thinkers like Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein’s daydreaming or “thought experiments” helping to fuel some of the greatest achievements of modern time. Weinschenk would probably be quick to point out that these geniuses were not mere daydreamers, but accomplished mind wanderers.

I suppose that’s a blow to all of us daydreamers who up until now could take solace in our former moony-eyed patron saints, Tesla and Einstein. I, for one, vow to pay more attention to my own mind wandering in the future.

Anyway, I’ll get right on that after I finish winning the lottery…

The Intersection: Where Bacon Meets Chocolate, and Creativity Meets Genius

Want to radically ramp up your creativity? In his new book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson believes he can help you. If you’re a fan of the Renaissance, you are probably familiar with the House of Medici. This powerful political dynasty bankrolled generations of thinkers, poets, philosophers, sculptors, painters, architects, and scientists. It is no exaggeration to say that in the 15th century, the Medicis were a driving force behind making Florence, well, Florence.

We still enjoy their legacy; Medici sponsorships enabled the work of heavy hitters like Galileo and Botticelli, as well as Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. (The artists, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Although that would be an amazing show…)

According to Johansson, the Medici genius was creating conditions that fostered the intersection of diverse disciplines. This co-mingling ultimately led to extraordinary leaps in innovation.

Johansson argues you can create your own little Medici effect if you correctly set up your environment. First, you must harness the way your brain picks up information. The brain’s strategy for learning is associative. It uses an elaborate sorting system, constantly looking for connections between arenas of knowledge.

Take music, for example.

I might begin with understanding that music is built on single entities called notes, and these notes combined in chunks of three or more make up basic structures called chords. As I learn the chord formations, I begin to understand their place in a larger system called a scale, and pretty soon I’m immersed in the study and playing of these scales. When we let these associations run wild, the result is a genre called jazz.

So this is how we build out our mental library, with each of these associations bridging out to other associations. It’s a very efficient way to take on and store information.

But the real power lies in the brain’s ability to combine domains. For instance, philosophy and specifically logic rest at the intersection of language and math. And it is at this nexus point you can spark some surprising insights.

One of the central themes of Johansson’s book is to immerse yourself in as much experience as possible with an eye towards seemingly unrelated connection.

If you frame your world in this way and you go deep with your exploration (a key to creativity, according to Johansson), you begin to see new possibilities. A young Steve Jobs’s fascination with calligraphy leads him to make a variety of fonts available on the early Apple computers, a distinct and winning differentiator from his competitors.

Kirby Ferguson’s creative model follows the process of “copy, combine and transform.” Johansson suggests that the key to novel ideas is keeping an aggressively open mind in the combination phase, bringing together elements that might, on the surface, seem out of place.

In your culinary adventures, you might not think mixing chocolate with bacon, but many people swear by it. Paul Simon’s Graceland melds traditional American roots rock with Cajun zydeco and South African mbaqanga, among others. Henry Ford’s revolutionary automotive assembly line took its cues from the meatpacking industry.

As Johansson says, “The world is connected and there is a place where those connections are made—a place called the Intersection. All we have to do is find it… and dare to step in.”

The Science of Epiphany

You know the sweet satisfaction when you suddenly have an epiphany? I’m talking about that “Aha!” moment when the circuits suddenly connect and, seemingly out of nowhere, you are struck with an insight.

Today, using fMRI technology, neuroscientists can watch the revelation unfold on a cellular level. Neurons begin to cluster and activity speeds up, eventually giving way to burst of energy not unlike a mini fireworks show. All this can be witnessed by the fMRI technician about eight seconds before the subject is aware of their impending moment of truth.

So how does this all work?

First, it’s important to differentiate between an actual Eureka moment and a more mundane retrieval of information from your hippocampus, that general purpose library of memories.

Insights are not merely rediscovering misplaced data, like suddenly remembering where your car keys are. They are combinations or reinterpretations of information, creating something entirely different or new. They are the embodiment of what it means to “think outside the box.”

It starts with consciously trying to solve a problem. Then there is the required period of struggle, hitting the proverbial brick wall with no solution in sight. Take the classic father and son riddle:

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child, he’s my son.” How can this be???

This brainteaser plays on the fact that some readers will automatically assume the surgeon is male.

Suppose you are one of those people whose gender bias prevented you from seeing the answer right away. Even though your prefrontal cortex might be stumped, unbeknownst to you, your subconscious brain is still working overtime trying to figure it out.

Interestingly, it seems that when your prefrontal cortex hits an impasse, it triggers other brain functions to kick into gear. This sets up the opportunity for free association by bypassing your analytical train of thought in favor of the hippocampus’s vast storage of information, feeling, and experience.

Your subconscious brain essentially goes into improvisational mode, and what we call daydreaming is actually this freewheeling engine hard at work. This is a critical aspect of the epiphany process for every one of us, from the average Joe or Jane in the street to Albert Einstein. (Einstein called his daydreaming “thought experiments.”)

Because all this business is going on below your awareness, when the solution floats up into your rational mind fully formulated, it feels as if it came out of nowhere.

Only the conscious brain has language. This is probably a good thing because if your subconscious brain could talk, it might very well demand a thank you, or at the very least an “I told you so”.

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