Masters thesis on Flow and Improvisational Music and Dance
But the degree is done (M.A. in Humanistic Psychology from the University of West Georgia) and the thesis has some bearing on the focus of this website.
I expected to learn a lot in graduate school, especially in such an amazing department with such intensely wonderful faculty and fellow students. But what I was not expecting to discover is that my creative life (reflected on this site in my work on historical textiles, my life doing historical re-enactments and immersive research and my dance life) and my professional life might actually merge. But merge, they have, and I am incredibly grateful for it.
I ended up spending much of my academic energy looking at how creativity can be used as a transformational tool for living a full and rich life. More specifically, my thesis looks at how improvisational music and dance can be used to access the flow state, a very powerful and well-documented altered state of consciousness.
A masters thesis, by its very nature, is a highly focused piece of research. But there has been some interest from many kind folks in reading it.
I've written an Introduction for the Generalist Reader to provide some context. This introduction is also included in the .pdf of my thesis so if you would like to share it with someone else, there will still be some information about how it was written and why.
This thesis was written as part of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Humanistic Psychology at the University of West Georgia in 2015. A number of people were kind enough to ask to read my thesis, so I am republishing it on my website SilkRoadConjectures.com.
Humanistic psychology is referred to as the “third wave” of psychology and though its roots are much deeper, it came together as a sub-field in the 1960s and ‘70s. In brief, humanistic psychology views human beings as complete, complex individuals. We are complicated creatures who could only exist as we do in the particular time, place and culture we have experienced. Human beings are not just a brain with a diagnosis attached and our bodies do more and mean more than being just sacks of meat to haul our brain around.
One of the critical insights of humanistic psychology is a turning away from the demands of the ‘natural sciences’ that have held sway intellectually for the past 400 years or so. All modern sciences tend to try to use the standards of the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, mathematics etc) to study human experience. Unfortunately, the worldview of the natural sciences is to ignore or deny anything that cannot be externally observed, measured and judged. For physics, astronomy, mathematics and the like, this is a reasonable position to take. But to take that view towards human beings is to systematically ignore much of which makes us human at all, especially the variation in human consciousness.
So humanistic psychology sees itself as being a real science, but as being a fundamentally human science that requires access to more data than can be gathered from a purely external perspective. Humanistic psychology also values the variability and uniqueness of human experience instead of looking for the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ or ‘average’ condition and measuring all other experiences as if normality were the fundamental goal of human accomplishment and everything that does not qualify as normal is somehow lacking or wrong or unacceptable. One of my favorite things about the amazing psychology department at UWG is the recurring refrain, “Normal? Yeah, normal is a setting on my washing machine.”
The goal of a thesis is to fill an existing hole in the research in your chosen field. I have been passionate about dance and music for my entire life and have observed the transformational aspects of creativity in myself and others as well. So with the guidance of Dr. Christine Simmonds-Moore, possibly the most amazing thesis adviser ever, I began exploring the variety of dance and music experience both from a psychological perspective and a cross-cultural one.
It’s very common for people to experience ‘altered states of consciousness’ during everyday activities and it appears that these states are good for us: for managing stress, for alternate ways of processing experience and solving problems, to facilitate cooperation and community feeling and just for relaxation and enjoyment. One of the more common altered states of consciousness can occur when you are driving. I’ve never talked to anyone who drives who has not experienced getting in their car, beginning to think of something else or nothing at all, and who is suddenly conscious of being at their destination with no clear memory of how they got there.
When I came to UWG, I was exposed to the work of writers such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Victor Frankl. They all come from the position that we do not strive to be normal or ordinary; we strive to fulfill our unique potential and to live a happy life that has meaning for ourselves and for the people around us. One of the qualities of a fulfilling life is the occurrence of ‘peak experiences’. Descriptions of ‘peak experiences’ sounded very familiar to me; these states frequently exist for me when I dance, listen to music and do other creative activities.
The idea of ‘peak experiences’ led me to the work of Mihaly Csiksznentihalyi. (During my thesis defense, I told my committee that I shouldn’t be allowed to graduate until I could spell his name without thinking about it. They laughed at me, and said they were willing to waive that requirement). Csiksznentihalyi was the first person to identify what he called ‘the flow state’, which is a state of being fully engaged in whatever is happening in the present moment and working to the outside limits of your skills. You are doing something that you are intrinsically motivated to do and you have an altered experience of the passage of time; time seems to either compress or expand. This is an inherently positive, enjoyable state and frequent experience of this state carries a whole raft of positive benefits.
But a thesis is supposed to fill a ‘hole’ in the research. The positive benefits of the flow state is very well studied; so is the type of situations or tasks that are conducive to the flow state. We know a lot about the type of personality that allows individuals to experience the flow state and we know that their performance improves when they are in the flow state. We know that people who frequently experience the flow state are much more likely to achieve mastery in their chosen activity.
What has not been clearly established is how you deliberately enter that state on your own, how you maintain it, or fix it if it is disrupted and how you systematically teach others how to reach it.
That is what my thesis sets out to do. This type of research has a necessarily narrow focus and so I chose to closely examine the experiences of experienced improvisational musicians and dancers. I examined how often they experience flow, how they control it and how they attempt or would attempt to teach others to experience flow.
I’m very pleased with the outcome of my thesis and I’m looking forward to putting what I have learned into practice. If you read this and have any experiences you would like to share, or if you would like to possibly be interviewed for a forthcoming book on the transformational aspects of music and dance, please write to me. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them, so ask away.
The thesis is reproduced here as it was published by my university through the ProQuest database, with one exception. My department required that I include the complete transcriptions of the interviews I conducted with the research participants. The six participants were very forthcoming during their interviews and some of the subjects they covered are quite sensitive. Out of respect for my participants, I have chosen to not include the full transcripts in this version that is posted publicly. However, each participant is quoted extensively within the text of the thesis. All transcripts and the chart of meaning units referenced in the text have been removed and I have added [redacted] each time they are mentioned so you don’t go searching for something that is not included.
I want to thank my participants for their time, expertise and trust. This research could not have been done without them.
I want to warn those of you that don’t read academic writing very often: the style of writing required is very specific. We write in the third person and the language is quite formal. The use of terminology is very specific and sometimes words that are used casually in normal conversation have very specific meanings when used in an academic context. All the terms are defined and explained in the text and I hope they are useful for a general reader.
However, I would welcome any questions you may have. Chances are, you aren’t the only person to have the question. Asking questions allows me to clarify my writing and make it more useful. I may use your questions as a jumping-off point for a blog post or as a way to edit my writing to make it clearer and more useful.
I have been overwhelmed with people’s interest in reading this work and I hope that it proves useful. Thank you so much for much for taking the time to read it.
August 3, 2015