The Neuroscience of Highly Productive Flow States

By on August 11, 2014

bioneer-brainFlow states can perfect your golf swing, make you a natural in conversation and help you to complete you best ever work. But what precisely is going on in the brain during ‘flow’ and how can you trigger it at will?

Once I was playing Micro Machines with my buddy Goof. This was one of our favourite games but neither of us were particularly good at it. If you’ve ever played it, the controls are all cack-handed so that you actually use the arrows to rotate your vehicles in the opposite direction while viewing the action from a top-down perspective. Simple things like going round corners are hard enough but then you have all these obstacles like rulers to drive across and projectiles getting flung at you.

But on this one occasion, we’d both been playing for hours while chatting when something clicked and we both fell into a robotic rhythm. Our tanks were side-by-side and for almost a whole lap we took every turn with perfect precision while remaining in unison like athletic divers. We stopped at the perfect points, rotated the precise amount we needed to for each corner and took the ruler ramp in a perfect straight line. You really had to be there but suffice to say that it was a legendary moment that we still look back on as the peak of our gaming performance. Which is sad.

At the time we called it ‘being in the zone’ but I’ve since learned that this phenomenon actually has a name outside of Micro Machines: it was a ‘flow state’.


What is a Flow State?

A ‘flow state’ is an almost mythical concept within business, art, sports and martial arts that describes a state of being wherein a person starts acting almost instinctively without distraction while focused intensely on a specific task or goal. The term was originally proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi but has since been ‘borrowed’ by just about every self-help guru, sports psychologist and executive under the sun.

In a business setting this might mean forgetting the pile of e-mails and working through a to-do list without any distractions. In sports it might mean getting out of your own head and delivering the perfect golf swing. In art it could mean creating something beautiful almost unconsciously without thinking about it. And in martial arts it could mean acting with split second reflexes like Neo from the Matrix because you’re so intensely ‘in the moment’ that time almost seems to slow down.

It’s a concept that is described by many but it is also infamously elusive and difficult to pin down. It tends to be eluded to in abstractions and vagaries and really that’s not terribly helpful if you’re trying to achieve that state in a systematic manner. If you could tap into flow states at will then you could achieve incredible levels of productivity for sustained periods, you could react with perfect reflexes in a fight, and you could beat anyone at Micro Machines.

Thus I’m taking this opportunity to look at flow states in a little more depth and to deconstruct the neuroscience behind them. Let’s find out what’s actually going on in the brain and whether you could potentially recreate the conditions associated with flow at will.

You can also check out two more recent posts I’ve written on the subject:

Cognitive behavioral therapy for accessing flow states

Are flow states overrated?

More Than One Flow State?

The first thing I’m interested in addressing is whether there really is one ‘flow state’, or whether in fact this one term is used to describe multiple different experiences.

An argument in favour of this latter idea is the fact that skills required to play Micro Machines are so different from those required to type up a perfect essay. Both involve a lack of distraction, but you’re using entirely different parts of your brain.

In fact, I personally have found that to improve my ability in motor tasks (like computer games or sports), it actually sometimes helps to distract myself by talking to someone. It’s almost as though doing this is what allows more instinctive parts of my brain to take over my hands for returning a ball or controlling a tiny car on the Megadrive (I couldn’t find any studies on this, but I believe it’s a fairly common experience you might be familiar with). This is a way of getting your ‘head out of the game’. Thus saying that you need to remove distractions to accomplish ‘flow’ might only be accurate in particular circumstances. Meanwhile, someone talking to you while you try and write your essay is not going to be that helpful. In martial arts like Aikido, a similar state is ‘no mind’ (‘mushin no shin’). Essentially, ‘no mind’ is being intensely aware of your surroundings and being able to react in a split second with no thought processes which would only slow you down. It’s a little bit like closing Microsoft Word before running a graphically intensive game to free up processor space on your PC…

‘When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.’ – Takuan Soho

A similarity across these types of ‘flow’ is that you’re removing distractions and focussing purely on the specific brain functions required to achieve the results you want to achieve. So for martial arts or sports you might be shutting off your language centres or your reasoning skills. On the other hand, for being productive in the office it might mean focussing on specific neural networks within your language centres and ignoring distracting thoughts and memories.

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Transient Hypofrontality

So the specific brain areas you want to engage with are possibly quite different depending on the purpose of the flow you’re trying to achieve. But while the areas you want to switch on may vary, there are nevertheless some areas that are universally unwanted. Of course you don’t want to turn your brain completely off in Aikido or you’d just collapse and stop breathing – you just want to turn off that ‘inner critic’ and those thoughts about what you’re going to have for dinner.

And that brain region is none other than the frontal cortex, or perhaps more specifically the dorsolateral frontal cortex. The term ‘transient hypofrontality’ can be used to describe what’s going on in the brain during flow states and means ‘temporary’ (transient) ‘under-activitiy’ (hypo) of the frontal cortex (frontality). This region of the brain is the part that gives us our ‘sense of self’ and the part that regulates our brain function. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that allows us to analyse and question our own behaviour which can be highly useful. Unfortunately it also slows everything down because it means that all our decisions have to go through it, and it can act as a ‘creative barrier’. It’s the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that causes you to choke when giving a speech or chatting up an attractive member of the opposite sex, it’s what causes you to get the ‘yips’ in golf and it’s what causes you to hit bum notes when performing a sonata on the piano. You question yourself, you overthink what you’re doing, and in that moment you lose that ‘pure’ sense of flow. Flow really means taking yourself – your ego – out of the equation.

Of course you need that part of your brain to avoid walking out into traffic or to avoid making very bad long-term decisions. However, when it comes to rehearsed performances or quick reactions it actually becomes more of a hindrance and would be better switched off. Or, I believe it’s possible to ‘disengage’ the prefrontal cortex from the activity by distracting it – by talking to a friend while playing table tennis for instance to let your body just ‘get on with it’.

Brain imaging shows that when in flow states we often actually switch off this part of the brain allowing all our attention to go to the part we want to use without censorship or micromanagement. This results in quick reactions and uninterrupted productivity. At the same time this also brains about a change in our brain waves – because the activity across the brain is actually now less widespread we move from regular ‘beta’ waves to ‘theta’ waves. Theta waves coincidentally are the waves we experience when in the ‘hypnagogic‘ state just before sleep.

The Neurochemistry of Flow

Another change that can be observed in brains that have achieved ‘flow’ is an increase in certain neurotransmitters. Specifically you increase norepinephrine (noradrenaline), dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. This is a similar neurochemical profile to those brought about by taking caffeine or modafinil – in other words they increase activity in the brain and focus more specifically. Dopamine is used to direct our attention and to keep us focussed on particular neural pathways through our connectome (connectome being the term that describes the gigantic map of neurons in your brain). Noradrenaline, like adrenaline, has a similar job of narrowing our focus and gives a kind of ‘tunnel vision’ for dealing with threats (it’s produced during the fight or flight response). According to Steven Kotler, author of ‘The Rise of Superman’ (which happens to be all about flow states), anandamine might help to improve lateral thinking. I couldn’t find any research to back this up, only one study showing that it impairs short term memory in rats… (1).

The question that often confounds psychologists though is whether the neurochemistry here is defining the behaviour, or whether the behaviour is stimulating the production of neurochemicals. In all likelihood it’s a result of both: your attention and engagement in a subject increases the production of these chemicals, which then help you to sustain that attention and potentially reach the point where your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex turns off due to inactivity.

Flow and Creativity

A phrase you will read commonly when researching this topic is ‘creative flow state’. That is to suggest that during flow you are also more creative and more able to come up with unique ideas.

I however would argue that this is actually a misnomer and that the state required for optimal creativity is not the same as the state we generally refer to as ‘flow’. In flow you are focussed on a very specific set of neural connections such that you manage to stop your mind wandering onto other tasks or subjects. This is the precise opposite set of traits that you need to accomplish creativity which is all about letting your mind wander between different memories and neural connections in order to find novel combinations and new ideas. And accomplishing this might actually require lower amounts of dopamine (2) and norepinephrine.

The flow state that is useful for sports, for performance and for writing is similar to the fight or flight response in terms of the chemical profile. On the other hand, creativity is associated with relaxed states. Even seeing the colour green can increase creativity (3) because we associate green with lush natural environments and are naturally relaxed by it. Leaning back in a more supine position in your chair may even be enough to somewhat increase creativity.

There are similarities between a highly creative state and flow state. For instance they both involve slower brain waves – alpha waves are the optimal for achieving creativity. Likewise, they both involve hypofrontality (the inner critic is not useful for creativity and may be responsible for writers’ block). Nevertheless, there is a subtle difference between the states that are ideal for creativity versus productivity and focus. And it’s the latter we usually describe as ‘flow’. Creativity and ideas come from the ‘nutty professor’ type brain-state, whereas precision comes from the ‘Zen warrior’ state or even the ‘jock’ state. There’s a reason that the ‘jock’ stereotype is associated with sporting excellence and success with the opposite sex – they’re able to get out of their own heads.

I believe that the key to ultimate mental performance is the ability to focus and control your brain state so that you can switch between highly creative states to highly focussed states as and when you need to.

How to Achieve Flow State

So with all that in mind, how do you go about turning off your frontal cortex, stimulating those theta waves, increasing dopamine and norepinephrine and focussing intensely on just one subject?

Well, transhumanists will be excited to know that it can be induced artificially by surpressing the frontal cortex via transcranial magnetic stimulation. That’s not really an option for most of us today though, so instead we have to use good old practice and discipline.

writing servicesAnd really what this involves is getting to the point where you don’t need your inner voice in order to complete a task. In martial arts this is accomplished by repeating the same movement over and over again to the point where the neural connections have been strengthened. By repeating inner and outer blocks over and over again in karate, we got to the point where we would perform the correct instinct perfectly and without thought. The same goes for rehearsing a piece of music for the piano, which is similarly represented in the brain by a series of neuronal connections. By playing the same tune over and over again, you can get to the point where your brain can play it on autopilot without your help. If you have to stop to ‘remember’ what you’re playing, then you will break that state and that’s when things will go wrong.

In terms of being productive at work this is a little more difficult as you will need to involve more varying parts of the brain in order to accomplish your tasks. The best you can do to try and achieve the necessary focus and flow is:

  • Complete all small, ‘niggling’ tasks like answering e-mails or put them out of your mind.
  • Do not try and multitask which breaks the flow state
  • Do the problem-solving and creative part before you engage in the mechanical ‘output’ part
  • Drink a strong coffee

If you have to write copy for a website then, to achieve flow and thereby write the best content in the shortest amount of time, you should first remove distracting tasks that otherwise prey on your mind. Then you should ‘prep’ for the task by doing research and by deciding on the structure of the article so that you don’t end up wandering what to do next or having to break focus (better yet, ‘learn’ and ‘internalise’ the structure and the research so that you don’t need to keep looking down at notes). Then finally you drink your coffee to increase dopamine and norepinephrine (use caffeine sparingly to increase its efficacy and avoid tolerance). Then you can sit down to write undistracted and you should find that the words flow straight from your brain to the page. If you get to that point where you need the toilet but can’t break focus so you end up holding it… congratulations you’re in productive flow!

Of course this takes practice, and like all things you can improve your focus by just trying to get into this state on a regular basis. Also very important is that you find the topic you’re writing about engaging or at least important. This will trigger a better chemical profile in the brain and aid concentration. If you find what you’re working on dull, then try to find an angle that you do find interesting. For writers, if you find yourself hitting the wall and getting writers’ block, it may just be that you find what you’re writing dull. Go back to the planning stage and restructure it so that it will be more interesting to write, and hopefully more interesting to read.

I find it can also help to ‘disengage’ other parts of my brain when I can’t switch them off. I do this by watching videos on YouTube on silent while I type. This seems to distract the part of my brain that wants stimulating colours and action so that the other part of my brain is free to stay ‘on task’. It’s like letting your kids watch Frozen on your iPad so that you can drive without them screaming in your ear on long journeys. I personally like to watch people playing computer games (Sonic the Hedgehog or Child of Eden specifically), but I’m not the only person who uses this strategy: Tim Ferriss also uses a similar technique as part of his writing routine.

In conversation Neil Strauss (author of The Game) recommends giving yourself three seconds to approach and talk to someone who you’re shy of talking to. That way you can’t overthink the matter and end up chickening out or just coming across as a bundle of neuroses. This could also be useful in other situations where you need acute focus – act before you can think.

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I also have a theory that you can increase focus by triggering a fight or flight response. Next time you’re about to play some sports try ‘psyching’ yourself up, or even trying to scare yourself. If you can raise your heartrate you will be more focussed and your reaction time will be improved.

Meditation is also a very effective as a way to practice controlling your attention. In fact, meditation is largely all about turning off your inner monologue (or at least disengaging from it in the case of mindfulness) and achieving alpha and theta brain waves. A little bit of meditation then may help you to gain control of your focus and direct it at will. You can also practice mindfulness when going through various activities and routines. This is an interesting article that suggests you can turn washing the dishes into an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Focus fully on what you’re doing and don’t let your thoughts wander. This is meditation in motion – precisely what you’re trying to accomplish in track and field events.

Finally, remember that attention requires energy. This is why we are more easily distracted in the evening when we’re tired. A good night’s sleep and a good dietary source of energy are crucial tools for increasing mental vigilance and avoiding distraction.

Then just try to forget about it… because as soon as you become aware of the flow state, you tend to lose it!

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.

  • Adam, this is a fantastic article. Im so glad I stumbled on to your site. Im a big believer that the more we know about how our brain works, the better we can work.