How does flow work? Stick to the bold text and the conclusion for quick information about flow science. Read the full article for a completer picture.
A lot goes on in our brains during flow. When we feel completely immersed in an activity and reach that peak state of performance, our brain undergoes many incredible changes.
Although much is still to be discovered, we already know about a few mind-blowing benefits and why they happen. Read on to discover the basics of what occurs on an anatomical, chemical and electrical level. And, of course, how does flow work, and how does it affect your performance?
Three types of brain changes caused by flow:
- Chemical changes in the brain
- Parts of your brain go offline
- The science behind brain waves
- Bonus: the flow cycle
Part 1: How does flow work on a neuro-chemical level?
At different stages during the flow cycle, a score of neuro-chemicals gets released. These are all feel-good hormones which make you perform better and, when they all come together during flow, they have a little party in your brain. That’s why flow state is addictive — experts prefer to call it auto-telic, or self-motivating, to avoid confusion with drugs.
We don’t care too much about that. Here’s a list of the six flow hormones, what they do and which drugs they can be found in. This doesn’t mean that you should take all these drugs at the same time, or any at all. They won’t bring you flow. So please, don’t, this is for comparison and information purposes only. [insert dealer’s number here just in case]
Norepinephrine is commonly found in drugs like speed and Ritalin. This hormone activates the body and puts our senses on high alert. Thanks to this chemical, we’re more focused when in flow. Additionally, in this state of intense alertness, noise and distractions around you are reduced, allowing for deeper concentration and improved pattern recognition. Norepinephrine is released during situations of stress and danger. Hence, perceived risk is a perfect pre-condition for flow.
Dopamine, the most (in)famous hormone, is related to many drugs, such as Ritalin, speed and cocaine. It enhances movement, memory and attention. Our brain naturally produces this chemical as a reward for positive thoughts, emotions and experiences. That’s why we always try to seek more of it and why dopamine-producing experiences are so addictive — auto-telic in the case of flow.
Anandamide looks a lot like THC, which can be found in marijuana, so it won’t surprise you that this hormone makes you happy. Moreover, it reduces pain and regulates your mood due to its anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects on the brain. To top it all of, anandamide also promotes lateral thinking, making you more creative. Consumption of fatty acids and fruits like apples can naturally boost anandamide production.
Endorphins are found in opioids. This class of hormones produces feelings of euphoria. They also work as pain blockers. Endorphin production can naturally be stimulated by exercise, meditation and a couple of foods, such as chocolate. (It had to be chocolate, right? Strange how that isn’t considered a drug yet, addictive as it is.)
Oxytocin is mainly known to affect levels of trust and attachment in relationships. For this reason, it’s an important chemical to enhance group flow. On an individual level, it’s also a good hormone to have around though, as it can reduce fear and anxiety; two infamous flow blockers. Natural sunlight and psychological warmth, such as a good hug, are excellent oxytocin boosters.
Serotonin, finally, is a hormone that is triggered by drugs like speed and MDMA. This chemical is mainly a mood stabiliser but it also enhances learning and memory function. Its production can naturally be influenced by diet and exercise.
Chemical brain party
As an increased presence of just one of these chemicals already leads to performance enhancement, imagine what the combination of all six of them does.
When these six hormones are highly active during flow, you will…
- benefit from a faster and stronger brain,
- receive a creative boost,
- process information more quickly and more deeply,
- learn a lot faster,
- pass on more information from short-term memory to long-term storage,
- feel happier than ever before.
During a state of flow, our brain releases higher levels of performance-enhancing and feel-good hormones. The combination of these neuro-chemicals sparks extraordinary levels of performance that can only be found during flow.
Part 2: How does flow work on a neuro-anatomical level?
On a neuro-anatomical level, the flow state causes something known as transient hypofrontality (a temporary lower activity in the prefrontal cortex). In other words, the frontal brain area temporarily goes offline, reducing complex decision-making, conscious thought processing, self-awareness and time recognition.
The positive effects are manyfold.
- No self-criticism
- Increased risk-taking
- Faster information processing
- More creative connections
- No emotional interruptions
- Heightened awareness on the task
Why does this happen?
- When you’re in a flow state, you have more brain power to be spent on what matters. Since the time of the godfather of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we’ve known that the brain can process about 110-120 bits of information per second. (For reference, listening to one person talking costs about 60 bits.) During flow, as the prefrontal cortex goes in sleep modus, less bits are occupied by mental and external distractions and you can spend more brain power on the task at hand.
- Flow increases our ability to think and act quickly. The ancient limbic regions of our brains think a lot faster than the more recent prefrontal cortex. These regions are often called the reptile brain because they thrive on impulse, not logical thinking. That’s why during flow, when the prefrontal cortex goes offline, our brain resorts to these fast-processing, creative-thinking areas of the brain.
During flow, the frontal area of your brain is temporarily deactivated, giving increased importance to the faster and more creative activities from the limbic brain. Simultaneously, you’ll be less distracted by negative emotions, such as self-criticism and anxiety.
Part 3: How does flow work on a neuro-electrical level?
In recent decades, electrical studies of the brain have shown that five types of waves can be found in the human brain. Brainwave activity changes based on what we do or feel. During sleep, lower-frequency brainwaves kick in, when you’re anxious, your brain will experience higher-frequency brainwaves.
Ranked from higher to lower frequency, these five types are gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta.
1. Gamma waves
These brainwaves are associated with higher-level processing tasks and cognitive functioning. It’s the highest possible frequency and it’s usually only present during flow. These brainwaves are related to “aha-moments”, so Archimedes was probably experiencing some of these when he jumped out of his bath and yelled “Eureka”.
2. Beta waves
A lower-frequency beta brainwave is the default brain activity. These beta waves are present during the daily functioning of the brain and with everything related to words. Higher-frequency beta waves are related to anxiety and stress. They take you further away from flow. In fact, before reaching a flow state, beta brainwaves start decreasing.
3. Alpha waves
This is a more relaxed state. Brain waves are a bit slower here and they facilitate free flow of information. Hence, this state is related with fantasy, imagination, light meditation, daydreaming and visualisation. It’s considered the bridge between the conscious and the subconscious.
4. Theta waves
Now we’re in the subconscious domain. Theta brainwaves are low frequency and thus rarely present during the normal functioning of the brain. They only exist when dreaming, during deep meditation or in flow. They are related to intense creativity.
5. Delta waves
These very-low-frequency brainwaves occur when you’re fast asleep. Deep healing and regeneration take place when your brain activity is this slow. These brainwaves are important to recover after intense activities, such as spending a long time in the flow state.
Flow and brain waves
Flow state brain waves are located on the border of alpha and theta; where the conscious and subconscious meet. This is also the only place where gamma waves can be sparked. During the flow state, there’s a constant flow of alpha, theta and gamma brainwaves.
If it’s all a bit much to process, don’t worry. Everything will come nicely together in the flow cycle below.
Our brain activity can be measured in five types of brainwaves. During flow state, several of these waves are active at the same time. This allows us to tap into creativity and perform on a superhuman level.
Bonus: How does the flow cycle work?
In case you’re still wondering, the flow state isn’t something you can just switch on and off. Instead, it’s part of a specific four-stage cycle consisting of struggle, release, flow and recovery.
Let’s have a close look at each stage of the flow cycle:
First up: the loading phase. This is when you strive to find the necessary information and develop the needed skills. It’s a very conscious state which is often quite unpleasant, hence the name struggle. During this stage stress hormones, like cortisol, tend to be released in the body. At this stage, you mostly experience alpha brain waves.
When the brain’s full of stress hormones, reaching flow is out of the question. That’s why you need a break after the struggle. As you take your mind of the problem and move away from the struggle, great things will start to happen. During this phase, stress hormones disappear, your brain has more alpha waves and the positive chemicals start to kick in. Now that the baddies are gone, your mind and body are ready to perform. Take action upon your newly-found inspiration.
There are many ways to let go and prepare for flow. Shower moments are great, others prefer gardening, Einstein rowed his boat on Lake Geneva. It can be really small too. Michael Jordan always laced up his new Air Jordans before a game.
TV and screens in general are not good tools to use in a release state. Studies have found that they have a different effect on the brain.
Ladies and Gentlemen. The moment you’ve all been waiting for. In this corner, weighing one hundred and seventy-five pounds. With a record of seventeen performance boosts, four hundred per cent faster learning, and four hours of focus. The undisputed, most optimal performance enhancer in the world: flow state. As said, alpha, gamma and theta waves are dominant.
The problem with flow, you might say, is that it requires a lot of energy. Flow depletes your hormone and energy storage. After these flow chemicals fade away, you might feel low. Just like the first stage, this one is also quite unpleasant. Don’t try to rush your body into a next flow state but give it time to recover and refuel.
It’s not always fully gone either, as creativity increased through flow can last for one or two days. This stage is where delta waves step in, if you allow yourself some sleep, of course.
To optimally benefit from flow, it’s important to accept the lows between the highs. If you’re too focused on the highs, you’re body won’t have time to recover, undesired chemicals will interrupt the process and you might eventually get a burnout.
And that’s just an intro to how flow works
Phew, that’s a bucketful of science. We hope that you now have a better understanding of how the flow state works. The more you read about it, the more you’ll realise how interconnected everything is. From triggers, over brainwaves and chemicals to flow benefits.
Now you know the science behind flow, I hope you’ll find it easier to tap into this highly desired state of performance. Remember that the flow cycle is key.
And as always, feel free to reach out if you have any doubts.
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How does flow work? Sources and further reading/watching about flow science