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The Neuroscience of Flow

The state of Flow unlocks peak physical and cognitive performance, and leads to some of the happiest moments in a person's life. Understanding this phenomena can support optimal conditions for it to occur as often as possible.

Article Nov 17, 2022

Rob Keefer

The state of Flow unlocks peak physical and cognitive performance. Time ceases to exist, the sense of self disappears, and creativity comes in unlimited supply.

Most people have experienced such a mental state of complete absorption. Yet not many can re-create it at will. Understanding what happens to your brain during the state of Flow can help you improve the chances of reaching such a desirable state.

Let's look at what goes on in our brain when we're in Flow and how you can leverage the neuroscience of Flow to create more of these blissful, creative, and productive moments.

What Is Flow?

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a positive psychologist and the author of Flow, defines the state of Flow as being completely immersed in an activity.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, Flow is "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it."

He also said that "the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen."

People in a flow state demonstrate strong attentional focus and task engagement, unaffected by stimuli or thoughts that are irrelevant to the task. They have low levels of stress, worries, and self-referential thinking. They also report feeling in control and having a clear sense of direction.

The Neuroscience of Flow

Many studies have focused on understanding what happens in the brain when a person is in a flow state. They found that different brain areas are activated, and our neurochemistry changes.

Shifts in Anatomical Functions During Flow

When you're in the Flow, the spikey and fast beta brainwave associated with day-to-day activities gives way to the steady and smooth alpha brainwave. The noise created by the rapid firing of neurons quiets down, creating what many call "headspace" to enable fewer but more profound connections.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for complex decision-making, self-awareness, and time recognition, becomes less active. Meanwhile, activities in subcortical limbic regions pick up.

This shift inhibits executive functions of the frontal cortex and reduces explicit processing such as self-referential thoughts. The brain can divert more resources to fast parallel processing, which sparks creative and spontaneous connections that often lead to new ideas and insights.

Studies found that various brain networks exhibit changes when a person is in a flow state. These include the central executive network (CEN) responsible for higher-order cognitive functions (e.g., working memory, attention, and inhibition) and Default Mode Network, which is active when a person isn't engaged in an external cognitive task.

Meanwhile, some scientists propose that the brain's locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system may involve various behaviors and subjective perceptions related to flow, even though more studies are needed to understand the relationship.

Changes in Neurochemistry During Flow

When your brain activities change, so will your neurochemical reactions. These neurotransmitters determine how we feel and react to the stimuli that lead to their production. When you're in a state of Flow, the brain activities trigger a potent cocktail of neurochemicals that enhances our performance and induces good feelings:

  • Dopamine: The body releases this feel-good chemical when we experience positive thoughts, emotions, and experiences. When we're in a state of Flow, the brain's dopaminergic reward system becomes more active—resulting in intrinsic motivation and a relentless dedication to a task.
  • Anandamide: Dubbed the "bliss molecule," this endocannabinoid (an opiate naturally produced by the body) is a pain modulator and mood regulator with anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties. It may even cause neurogenesis (i.e., creating new brain cells.)
  • Norepinephrine: Released by the sympathetic nervous system during the fight or flight response, norepinephrine is also involved in the flow state by activating the body and alerting our senses.
  • Serotonin: This mood stabilizer regulates emotions. It may contribute to the calm feeling we experience when we're in a flow state.
  • Endorphine: This neurochemical is best known for generating the euphoria of what many call the "runners' high," which is not unlike what many feel when they're in the Flow.

Creating the Perfect Condition for Flow

To achieve a state of Flow and make activities more enjoyable while reaping benefits such as increased creativity and better emotional regulation, we can set up conditions to trigger the necessary shifts in brain activities and neurochemistry.

Set clear goals that require specific responses (e.g., winning a chess game) to focus your attention. Eliminate distractions that could divert your attention and keep your prefrontal cortex active. Also, balance the challenges or action opportunities with your skills.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, "Flow happens when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges."

Additionally, you can set up conditions to help induce alpha brainwaves. These include working at your biological peak time, listening to certain kinds of music (e.g., familiar tracks without lyrics,) and focusing on a single task. Some people also find it helpful to create a mental cue or ritual that signals to the brain that it's time to switch gears.

Meanwhile, support the production of the neurochemicals serotonin and endorphins through diet and exercise. For example, foods high in the essential amino acid tryptophan enhance serotonin production, while spicy foods, dark chocolate, and nuts can boost endorphin production.

Last but not least, choose tasks that you enjoy! You aren't likely to get into a flow state if you're doing something you don't like (how can you lose track of time if you're constantly peeking at the clock?)

Getting into the Flow is both art and science—after all, we're dealing with the complexity of the human brain and the variability of the human experience. But we'll have a better chance of doing so if we understand the neuroscience behind it to create the optimal conditions for it to happen.

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