Work and Play: It’s just a frame of mind…and why it matters.

Apter states that the individual may switch back and forth between the paratelic (playful) frame of mind or the telic (serious) in a process of mutually exclusive “psychological reversals,” much like that of a Gestalt figure-foreground perceptual switch. (Heiser, 2015, p. 87)

Rabbit or Duck? A gestalt groundshift much like the shifting serious & playful metamotivational states described by British pyschologist Michael J Apter.

One of the major trends in creativity research in recent times has been socio-cultural and historical approaches to the topic. These perspectives are not hing new, but rather represent a resurgence of ideas popularised in the early twentieth century by Soviet psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria. In the arts, theories such as Mihalyi Csizkszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity (1999) and Pierre Bourdieau’s Field of Cultural Production (1993) have proved most popular. So much so, that “individual” psychology has become something of a dirty word for academics.

Nonetheless, creativity researchers such as R. Keith Sawyer are starting to acknowledge that individual psychology still has an important role to play in understanding creative endeavour. Nowhere is this more the case than with regard to the inner experience of creative practitioners, and more specifically, their motivations. These concepts can best be approached systematically using phenomenology as a basis.

Phenomenology: the science of personal consciousness.

Pure phenomenology is most commonly associated with Husserl’s philosophical method, a self-proclaimed science of pure phenomena where the only reliable data is not from the “outside” world but rather how aspects of it are “reduced to the contents of personal consciousness” (Groenewald, 2004, p. 4). If you’ve ever used the terms “flow”or “optimal experience” (coined by Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) to describe aspects of your creative practice, then you’ve grappled with phenomenological concepts.

Fickle humans

Both Csikszentmihalyi and British psychologist Micheal J. Apter have in common an approach to phenomenology that emphasises the temporal aspects of experience, and describe how the contents of personal consciousness are in a constant state of flux. Apter describes his theoretical perspective as structural phenomenology since it relates to, not only, the temporal structure of conscious experience, but also the role that motivation and emotion play in that structure.

“Why is this important?” you may well ask. Well, it’s crucial because humans behave differently in any given situation depending upon their motivation(s). The problem being that motivations can change at any given moment depending upon how individuals chose to frame their direct experience.

Apter rejects the traditional concept of “trait” psychology where people are described as being unchanging and rigid in their responses to the world around them. We all know from personal experience with ourselves and others that humans are anything but predictable. Perhaps, this goes some way to explaining contemporary art-based academics’ overwhelming mistrust of individual psychology (those pesky human individuals have been brushed into the “too-hard” basket). Apter explains:

Personality is dynamic not static: we are more like dancers than statues….The reason for this seems to be that there is an ever-changing internal context to our actions as well as external environmental forces. We want different things at different times and, partly as a consequence, we see things differently. In this respect our personalities are shifting and unconstant….to be healthy is to be unstable – to be able to move between different kinds of personality to suit the occasion….If biodiversity is necessary to the health of an ecological system, then what we might call “psychodiversity” is just as important to the health of the individual. (2003, p. 474)

Frame of Mind

The concept of “frame of mind” is of key importance to creative practice in the arts, since it explains why mediocre practitioners prefer to “not fuck with the formula,” while (according to Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976) artists of greater talent and insight follow their material where it wants to go (and take creative risks doing so). The former are most likely motivated by extrinsic rewards that the work might bring: praise, money, fame, influence etc.

According to Apter, when individual focus on the future and the consequences of their actions: They are working. When, instead, they focus on the present moment without fear of consequences: They are playing. It is no wonder that creativity scholar J Nina Lieberman calls artists the practitioners of play.

Viewed phenomenologically, it is only how an activity is framed in one’s mind that defines it as work or play.

Consider the following: The (paratelic) playful frame of mind can be characterised with regard to three dimensions. Apter (1982) explains:

• time-dimension (i.e., it is present-oriented, spontaneous, “sufficient unto itself,” and brings the pleasure of immediate sensation)
• means-end (for e.g., its goals are freely chosen, or may even be inessential; it is both process and behaviour-oriented; proactive, and attempts will be made to prolong the activity, since it is pleasurable)
• intensity (i.e., make believe is prevalent, and high intensity or arousal are preferred).

So, when an activity is approached playfully, the participant attempts to prolong engagement since the process itself brings the reward of pleasure in the present moment. Pleasure, in the serious (telic) case, is derived from the anticipation of reaching a goal and collecting the reward. One will attempt therefore, to complete the activity as soon as possible in order to receive benefits sooner rather than later (p. 52).

Art and risk-taking:

ENO: Just another day at the office.

The “protective frame” of play provides a “somewhat disengaged psychological stance characterized by minimal defensiveness” (Lieberman, 1977, p. 69) and promotes risk taking. Music producer Brian Eno asserts that the protective frame engendered by a playful approach to creativity is a key feature of art: “‘Art is safe.’ …You’re creating a false world where you can afford to make mistakes” (quoted in Tamm, 1995, p. 21).

When the “protective” playful frame of mind is adopted:

  • High arousal and protective frame = excitement
  • Low arousal and protective frame = boredom

In the opposite serious frame of mind, each of these characteristics are simply reversed:

  • High arousal and no protective frame = anxiety
  • Low arousal and no protective frame = relaxation (Apter, 2018, p 58).

So, when in a playful mood risks feel exciting. When we are looking at things seriously, the same risks make us feel anxious. As ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland remarks, the “worst musical train wreck hurts absolutely no one” (p. 248), but try telling that to the concert promoter (or Sting).

Csikszentmihalyi likewise explains, “Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world” (1990, p. 20). If you’d like to know more check out my PhD dissertation (2015).

Please note: Portions of this article were presented and published in thesis form in the fulfilment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.

References:

Apter, M. J. (2018). Zigzag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality. (p. 58). Matador. Kindle Edition.

Apter, M. J. (2003). On a certain blindness in modern psychology. In The Psychologist, 16(9), 474-475.

Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation: The theory of psychological reversals. London, England; New York, NY: Academic Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production. New York, N Y: Columbia University Press.

Copeland, S. (2009). Strange things happen: A life with The Police, polo, and pygmies. New York, NY: HarperStudio.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 313-335). Cambridge, England; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Csikszentmihal yi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, N Y: Harper & Row.

Getzels, J. W., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1976). The creative vision: A longitudinal study of problem finding in art. New York, NY: Wiley.

Groenewald, T. (2004). A phenomenological research design illustrated. In International journal of qualitative methods, 3(1). Article 4. Retrieved from http://www.ualberta.ca/~iiqm/backissues/3_1/pdf/groenewald.pdf

Heiser, M. S. (2015) The playful frame of mind: An exploration of its influence upon creative flow in a post-war popular music-making context. (Doctoral dissertation). Brisbane, Australia: Griffith University.

Lieberman, J. N. (1977). Playfulness: Its relationship to imagination and creativity. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Tamm, E. (1995). Brian Eno: His music and the vertical color of sound. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.