If the idea of subjecting yourself to novel states – or ‘rich environments’ – sounds familiar, then you may have read Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.
In that book, Steven describes what is known as a ‘flow state’ in detail. This is the condition in which we are most alive, most happy and the best at performing.
It’s the exact opposite of wandering around and being stressed about work.
In a flow state, you are so engaged with the surroundings and what’s happening that you forget ‘yourself’ entirely. Sound familiar? It’s almost like a form of meditation, except this time you are completely switched onto the world around you.
This is something that most of us have experienced at some time in our lives and you may be familiar with it even if you think back.
Have you ever dropped something out of a cupboard and moved so fast to catch it that you didn’t even think?
Have you ever been playing sports, when suddenly the world seemed to slow down to a crawl and you were able to move with superhuman reflexes and break your personal record with some kind of superhuman feet?
Have you ever been writing and been so engaged with what you’re saying that you’re able to completely lose track of time?
Have you ever been in a conversation that lasted all night?
All these are examples of flow states. And in fact, even watching a film can sometimes mimic flow. In this scenario, you might become so engrossed in what’s happening on the screen, that you are shocked when you step outside and it’s dark. It’s almost like waking from a dream.
This is like ‘action meditation’ and it’s thought to be at the heart of most of our scientific breakthroughs, most record breaking athletic accomplishments and all kinds of other examples of people acting their very best.
So what’s going on inside that head of yours when you enter a flow state?
Essentially, a flow state is very similar to the ‘fight or flight’ response but with less ‘negativity’ you could say. It means that you think what is happening around you is very important and deserves all of your attention. As a result, your body starts to produce dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, anandamide and other neurotransmitters. This causes your brain to become intensely focussed, which creates the illusion that time has slowed down. You gain a kind of tunnel vision and now the only thing you’re focussed on is that one moment and the things you have to do to emerge from it victorious.
You begin to react almost automatically and instinctively with barely any input from your conscious mind.
And what this actually looks like in a brain scanner is called ‘temporo-hypofrontality’. To translate that into English, this means that for a brief period of time, the front portion of your brain (prefrontal cortex) has shut down. This sounds like a bad thing until you realize that this is actually the part of your brain that’s responsible for doubt and that slows you down.
When you’re catching a ball, your body can do it perfectly every time. The problem is that you ‘get in your own way’.
By letting the front part of your mind shut down in that moment, you can tap into the incredible reflexes and focus of your body and act on pure instinct. You become an incredible machine, capable of inhuman performance.
You break records in sports, you produce incredible work and you come out of it feeling alive and invigorated.
In fact, it is said that many people actually ‘chase’ after these kinds of flow states – and that this explains a lot of thrill seeking behaviour.
Oh yeah and guess what temporo-hypofrontality also looks a lot like in a brain scan? You guessed it: meditation!
I highly recommend that you take up some kind of exciting hobby and that you start exploring more. Excite yourself and get yourself to focus and to pay attention!
Flow states are currently all the rage and are getting a huge amount of attention in the psychological literature as well as online, in forums and in popular culture. Flow states are being touted as the solution for ‘everything’ and as something we should strive to always encourage.
But actually, this is somewhat missing the point.
Yes, sometimes we should be alert and connected. Sometimes we should be able to shut out the outside noise and to focus on calmness, stillness and oneness.
But actually, that chatter and stress is not something we want to entirely eradicate.
Sounds like I’m contradicting myself now right? Stay with me!
Yes, when we were animalistic in our behaviour, we were much happier, much less stressed and much more engaged with the world around us. But you know what? We were also animals.
We managed to achieve all those things that we achieved today by getting out of that reactive and engaged state and yes… stressing.
And not all stress is bad. ‘Eustress’ describes the kind of stress that motivates us to do things – things like perform our best at work, revise for exams, save money. Studies show that people who never feel stressed actually tend to perform worse in education and in their careers.
There’s more too. Did you know that being completely focussed is actually counterproductive to true creativity? True creativity comes from letting the brain explore different neural connections – it is the act of recombining different ideas and memories into new formats and we tend to do this when daydreaming and when having an internal monologue.
When you do this, you enter what is called the ‘default mode network’. This is exactly the state of mind that you’re in when you are daydreaming and letting your thoughts run away with you. It tends to occur when you’re engaged in mindless tasks – like commuting – and it too is responsible for some incredible breakthroughs. It’s part of legend now that Einstein came up with the theory of special relatively while working in a patent office – and it was the dull and mundane nature of working in that environment that allowed him to do so.
It might be nice to think that flow states and meditation are the answer to everything – but they’re not. They’re actually just a very important part of our mental experience that many of us have forgotten. Instead of trying to completely eliminate one type of brain state, true control of the mind means being able to switch from one brain state to another with ease.
In other words, it means being able to mull over tasks and agenda items when you’re a bit stressed or when you’re working. It means entering a productive flow state when you’re entering data, or when you’re doing martial arts or sports after work. And it means being able to switch off and let your brain have some much-needed peace and quiet when you get home from work.