In business, in sports and in martial arts, there exists a state of mind known as ‘flow’. This flow state is an almost mythical level of consciousness, during which the person experiencing it is able to focus completely undistracted on a single task without distraction. This then enables them to maintain the most efficient possible performance on that task; completing huge amounts of work in record time, coming up with unique ideas that they otherwise would not have come across and performing sports with split-second reflexes and perfect coordination.
But this flow state is unfortunately one that is very elusive and rather difficult to define. The idea was originally described by psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, but has since been used in many other contexts. Different definitions describe flow differently and there isn’t that much concrete information available as to what it actually is or how you can go about achieving and maintaining that state in a systematic manner.
Fortunately though there is some information out there, and I’ve done the digging for you. Read on and we’ll look at precisely what flow states are from a neurological point of view, and how you can thus go about achieving and maintaining them.
The Three Aspects of Flow States
According to Steven Kotler – author of the book ‘The Rise of Superman’ which discusses this topic in detail, flow states can generally be broken down into three distinct elements. These are a specific neurochemistry, theta brain waves and ‘transient hypofrontality’.
Transient hypofrontality is perhaps the most interesting and the most important. What this is essentially describing is a passing state of mind during which the frontal cortex is showing limited activity. Specifically that means that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has gone quiet, which is the part of our brain that we associate with critical thinking, impulse control and self-review. In other words, it is the ‘inner critic’ and the voice in our head that tells us we’re going to choke when we’re delivering a speech or teeing off. This is a very useful and important part of the brain for getting by in modern life, but when it comes to performing sports it’s actually not helpful and will only serve to slow us down and make us question ourselves. It’s by quietening this part of the brain then, that we’re able to focus on purely the things that matter and shorten the amount of neuronal distance travelled between ‘impulse’ and ‘action’. When in a fight, the last thing you want to be doing is second guessing yourself when you’re blocking a punch – you want to go straight from seeing the incoming attack to making the block action. This is what defines the state of ‘no mind’ that is described in some martial arts, and it could also help to unleash the flood gates on creativity by removing the ‘filter’ as it were.
Meanwhile theta brainwaves are a result of this ‘quietening’ of the brain. Because brain activity is more localised, this results in a different pattern of electrical activity. Specifically that pattern is called ‘theta wave’ which is the same state we go into just before we fall asleep (during ‘hypnagogia’). In this state our brain becomes more free-flowing as it follows neuronal connections and deals with stimuli.
Finally, this is all accompanied by the release of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Specifically these include norepinephrine (noradrenaline), dopamine and serotonin. These are similar to the neurotransmitters that are produced when we drink a mug of caffeine and are useful for increasing our ability to focus and to maintain vigilance.
How to Encourage a Flow State
With all this in mind then, how do you achieve and maintain a productive flow state yourself?
Well the overall objective is to focus intently on a single task, to the point where your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex will go quiet from inactivity. To do this you need to practice your ability to focus which you can do with meditation and through general practice. At the same time you need to remove all possible distractions before setting down to work or performing and you need to try and engage with the subject or activity in order to increase your mindfulness. The use of stimulants such as caffeine may help you to accomplish this more easily, as can the natural ‘fight or flight’ response which triggers the release of similar hormones and neurotransmitters to encourage focus and attention.
When performing sports, martial arts, dance or music meanwhile, the secret is to practice the precise technique over and over again to the point where it becomes second nature. This will strengthen the neuronal connections that represent that action such that performing the first half of the movement makes us naturally move on to complete the subsequent stages. This allows you to remove your conscious, critical mind from the equation and to act out those movements on ‘autopilot’.
Finally, make sure that you provide yourself with plenty of energy. The simple act of focussing on a single task or subject actually requires a lot of energy, and thus getting a good night’s sleep and eating a healthy diet high in sugars could help you to maintain vigilance on a single task for longer.