What's going on in the brain when you're in flow?

We ask a psychologist and a neuroscientist what’s going on in the brain when people enter the flow state of productivity and focus.

By Bonnie Christian on 18/04/2019

Blog Image| What's going on in the brain | Headline 1

After Alex Honnold scaled El Capitan’s 2,300m vertical cliff within Yosemite National Park without any ropes he described the four hour feat as feeling almost “automatic”. In a Ted talk from 2018 he recalls: “I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I had no doubts. I just climbed right through. Even the difficult and strenuous sections passed by with ease. I was perfectly executing my routine.”

Most people would call Honnold crazy but psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has another name for this certain kind of mindset: the flow state. More commonly known as being “in the zone”, this state of mind doesn’t just help people scale monumental cliffs, it is the powerhouse behind peak creative thinking and highly successful entrepreneurs. Richard Branson told Forbes in 2014: “When you do [reach flow], you get in an extra two hours of great work done in a day and the other twelve are really, really productive.”

But what goes on in the body when flow is being achieved and how can anyone find flow?

The psychology of flow

Giovanni Moneta, a psychologist and expert in flow at the London Metropolitan University, says the moments before flow is experienced are not “necessarily pleasant.” The pre-flow state was described to him by a surgeon as: “feeling a sense of empathy, anxiety and a real need to problem solve.” But that feeling switches as a person moves into the zone. People explain that they “don't notice much of anything going on,” yet they’re “thinking clearly and being productive.”

Moneta reports that there are two different types of flow, one being shallow and the other a deep state. The latter was once described to Csikszentmihalyi as being so oblivious to one’s surroundings that the house could burn down. Then, there’s solo flow and the group flow – a person can be in the zone while reading a book or solving a maths problem, but they can also enter flow with others, while playing basketball or performing in a jazz band.

Even the brain patterns registered during a state of flow differ from that of normal day-to-day focus. Beta wave activity, which usually appears spikey and furious, slows to a more gentle wave – much like when in a meditative state. The effect of this in the brain is that space is created for fewer but deeper connections, which in turn creates extreme focus and concentration.

The neuroscience of flow

Not only does the brain operate differently but chemically, there’s a change too. Csikszentmihalyi identified a “cocktail” of neurochemicals that are released to enable flow. The feel good chemical dopamine is released alongside the so-called bliss molecule, anandamide. In addition, norepinephrine, which is released during fight or flight responses, with the mood stabiliser serotonin and endorphins, the runner’s high.

A theory developed by flow expert and neuroscientist Arne Dietrich explains the deep down processes of flow, where two neural systems effortlessly exchange information. The first, known as the explicit system, is associated with the frontal lobe and flexible, higher cognitive functioning. The other, the implicit system, is associated with skill-based knowledge and increasing efficiency. When someone is in flow, the skills stored by the implicit system are accessed and deployed by the explicit system without any interference from other regions of the brain, explaining the often reported loss of self-consciousness and awareness of time.

Putting flow to use

Moneta says achieving flow is not just for the top CEOs or people wanting to achieve death-defying acts, but can be used as a way to enhance a normal work day or get through a creative project. “Starting with the obvious: avoid noisy environments and opportunity for interruptions,” he says. But even then, it is not always completely necessary: “I wrote the three best papers of my life in 1993 and 1994 when I was working in an overcrowded office shared with cheerful and noisy colleagues,” he says.

But, delving deeper, enabling flow requires engaging in activities that we enjoy and strike a balance between being not too difficult that we become frustrated but not too easy that we become bored. “We need to engage in activities that are meaningful to us, that we find challenging and for which we feel that we have the skills required to come out as winners,” says Moneta. Good psychological health – sleep, regular exercise, a well balanced diet, social support and a healthy amount of stress – is also crucial to enabling states of flow.

Moneta concludes with a word of warning: it is exhausting and it is a good idea to take regular breaks. A point noted by one of the world’s most celebrated writers – Ernest Hemingway.

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it,” he wrote. Then he could “stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start to work again.”

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