Group Flow: When Groups Gain Access to a Mysterious Creativity

August 3rd, 2021

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

Guest writer for Wake Up World

Flow is a state of intense absorption in which we lose awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. It arises when we focus our attention on a stimulating and challenging activity, creating a sense of well-being and giving rise to creativity. Most of us have certain hobbies that generate flow, such as playing music, dancing, reading, or gardening. If you’re lucky, you might have a job that regularly brings you flow. In this sense, flow is probably the most essential aspect of job satisfaction.

However, flow isn’t just an individual experience. In recent years, psychologists have become increasingly interested in the communal aspects of flow, sometimes referring to it as “group flow” or “social flow.” This is when the state of flow is shared by a group such as a sports team, a musical band, or a working group. In group flow, the members of the group attune to each other in a subtle unconscious way, and become capable of remarkable creative (or athletic, in the case of sports teams) feats. They become much more than the sum of their individual talents. Some researchers even suggest that group flow can arise even when members of a group are not individually in a state of flow.

Group flow emerges from a number of interacting factors, mostly depending on the relationships between members of a group. According to one leading researcher on group flow, Keith Sawyer, the most important factors are: sharing a common goal, spontaneous creativity (without conscious deliberation), the blending of egos, equal participation, communication, familiarity, and a sense of forward movement. If such conditions are met, what Sawyer describes as a “genius group” may emerge (1).

Group Flow in Music

The concept of group flow helps to explain why certain rock bands (and other musical groups) have attained amazing levels of creativity and become—in Sawyer’s phrase—”genius groups.” In a recent academic paper, I examined two remarkable British bands, Joy Division and Black Sabbath, in terms of group flow (2). I examined the principles and conditions of group flow and showed how each group adhered closely to them.

Both bands were friends from the same (or at least a similar) environment, who developed their music together from the beginning, forming a close personal and musical bond. They both created music in a highly collaborative, organic way. They worked up songs together in rehearsal, from the raw material of guitar riffs (in the case of Black Sabbath) or bass guitar riffs or drum patterns (in the case of Joy Division).

Unconscious Creativity

The creativity of both of the bands was largely unconscious. As Joy Division’s drummer, Stephen Morris, has recalled, “We never talked about [the music] or thought about it. It just worked.” For both bands, their unconscious creativity led to a prolific output. In a professional recording career lasting less than two years, Joy Division recorded over 40 songs. Similarly, in a period of two and a half years, Black Sabbath released four full-length albums, at a time when they were touring almost constantly.

The members of both bands describe how their songs seem to come through them rather than from them, almost as if they were “channeling” them. Black Sabbath’s bass player Geezer Butler described how the band’s “first four albums just came from nowhere.” Similarly, Joy Division bassist Peter Hook has described how their songs “just flowed like rain … We couldn’t stop writing them.” Joy Division’s most famous song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was written in three hours, while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” was written in 20 minutes, after the band was asked to “jam something” at the end of a studio session. Because of this, both bands felt that their music was something “other” to them, a mysterious force that they couldn’t explain or understand.

Both Joy Division and Black Sabbath are renowned for the “heaviness” and “darkness” of their music. This is also a product of their group flow, which meant that they became conduits of environmental influences and unconscious psychological forces—in particular, the bleakness of urban-industrial life in the U.K. in the 1960s and ’70s. However, at the same time, there is a powerful transcendent quality to their music, precisely because it emerged from a mysterious unconscious source. I think this is why both bands continue to be remarkably popular, decades after their demise.

Group flow is really about human potential. In music, the transcendent creativity that groups harness touches everyone who listens to it. The music has an uncanny power, as if from a deep collective part of the human psyche. In this way, group flow is really a transpersonal or spiritual phenomenon, which emerges when people transcend separateness and form an intense connection.


(1) Sawyer, R. K. (2007), Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, New York: Basic Books.

(2) Taylor, S. (2021). Channelling the darkness: Group flow and environmental expression in the music of Black Sabbath and Joy Division. Metal Music Studies, Volume 7, Number 1, 1 March 2021, pp. 85-102(18)

Originally published at Psychology Today and reproduced with permission.

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About the author:

Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His latest books in the US are The Calm Center and Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. He is also the author of The Fall, Waking From Sleep, and Out Of The Darkness. His books have been published in 19 languages. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.

As the author of Out Of The Darkness, one of Steve’s research interests is “awakening experiences” — moments when our normal awareness intensifies and we feel a sense of connection and meaning. What causes these experiences? Is it possible to control them? Steve’s work also examines the sources of psychological suffering — Why is it that human beings find it so difficult to be contented? His research also shows that many awakening experiences are triggered by intense psychological turmoil, such as depression and loss.

Connect with Steve at

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