Are ‘Flow States’ Overhyped?

By on May 18, 2015

The term ‘flow state’ refers to a state of mind in which we are 100% focused on what we are doing and where everything seems to slow down and come into focus. This is the state that athletes are in when they break records and that start-up businessmen and women are in when they lose track of time in all the excitement of planning their business. Flow states let us react with perfect speed and timing and to get ‘into the zone’ for incredible productivity. They occur when we’re massively engaged in extreme sports, when we’re focused on a project or when we’re exploring an exotic location.

flow-canyon

So you’d think this would be right up ‘The Bioneer’s’ alley.

And it is… but there’s a problem. That problem is that the term ‘flow state’ has become severely overused and blown out of proportion to the point where it’s kind of lost its meaning. At the same time, it undervalues other brain states and makes the whole thing rather over-simplistic.

The Default Mode Network vs Flow

Here’s a quote from Steven Kotler who wrote ‘Rise of Superman’:

Researchers now know that flow sits in the heart of almost every athletic championship; underpins most major scientific breakthroughs; and accounts for significant progress in the arts. In business, its impact has been substantial. Flow states are now known to optimize performance, enhance creativity, drive innovation, accelerate learning and amplify memory.

And people are saying this kind of thing enough that it’s becoming accepted that this is the way things are. But seriously… every major scientific breakthrough? Really?

Actually, Einstein credits the default mode network with his particular discoveries. This is the brain state that you can describe as being almost the exact opposite of flow. The default mode network describes regions that activate when an individual is completely not focused on the outside world. This is responsible for our feelings of ‘day dreaming’ and it’s why ‘mundane tasks’ like walking, showering or working in a patent office can trigger big ideas. These brain regions include the medial prefrontal cortex, whereas flow states are all about ‘hypofrontality’ or the closing down of the prefrontal cortex which is ‘blamed’ by flow proponents for creating doubt.

In fact, there’s actually a big move generally in biohacking, self-help and pop psychology to try and eradicate prefrontal brain activity. ‘Be in the now’, ‘stop doubting yourself’, ‘focus’… flow is very much in vogue and the default mode network is out of favor. Meditation is great, thinking about the future or the way things work is bad. It all sounds good but isn’t there inherent value in just relaxing and letting your mind wander sometimes? The theory of relativity rather suggests there is!

Flow, Flow Everywhere

The problem is that Steven Kotler and his crew want to sell flow states as the ‘answer to everything’ and an almost quasi-religious phenomenon. In flow, the world is brighter, you are happier, you are faster and you are kinder.  There’s a desperation here almost to make flow states ‘fit’ every possible desirable behavior.

Flow state proponents keep telling us that flow states enhance creativity because they help us to rapidly combine different ideas. For instance, flow states are supposedly help us to overcome cognitive biases like functional fixedness. Except no one can really come up with a reason why. According to Kotler, flow states increase anandamide, which aids lateral thinking. The only problem is, I can’t find one study that shows a link between anandamide and creativity (though it does impair short term memory in rats (1)). What flow states are synonymous with are: norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. These are things that make you focused and wired but not more creative. In fact, dopamine may make you less creative and generally focus and creativity lie at opposite ends of the spectrum (2). Creativity is combinatory – it requires you to let your mind wander across different ideas and to make connections between disparate ideas. This is effectively the opposite of being ‘highly focused’.

flow-state-writing

Worse is the idea of the ‘helpers high’ being a type of flow. Here is Kotler again writing for Forbes:

Altruism is another gateway. Back in the 1990s, Big Brother/Big Sister founder Allan Luks discovered there’s an altruism-backed flow state called “Helper’s High.” Originally, it was believed to show up only in hands on acts of altruism—like joining the Peace Corps or volunteering in a soup kitchen—but has since turned up in far more ordinary examples—like bidding at a charity auction.

Now I’m not saying I have a problem with altruism (I’m not Doctor Robotnik!) but saying that the rush of endorphins you get from giving a hobo a sandwich is anything at all like the rush of adrenaline you get from snowboarding is frankly dumb. Yes they both feel good, but is that all that it takes for a state to be described as ‘flow’? If so, what’s the point of the word at all? Do you feel any more focused after giving someone a sandwich?

Kotler also says that being in flow is easier when you have certain ‘flow triggers’ such as ‘rich environments’. That basically means that you’re more likely to be ‘in flow’ if you’re in a novel and colorful setting. Really though, if you’re hurtling down a mountain your brain is hardly going to care how attractive the environment is around you. A rich environment is of course going to make you a little more alert and attentive. But that’s it…

flow-krka

Ultimately, flow states boil down to a ‘happy fight or flight response’. This is your brain’s way of saying ‘what’s happening is super important so I’m going to stop you getting distracted’. This is great and it’s especially great for athletic performance or productivity. But it is certainly not the only desirable brain state and it is certainly nothing to do with altruism.

Stop trying to force the word flow where it doesn’t fit!

Every Brain State is Different

In reality, every brain state is different. You can’t compare one example of ‘flow’ with another because the precise neurochemistry will be slightly different – even if the situation is the exact same.

Really the whole idea of ‘brain states’ is pretty misguided. Instead of thinking of the brain as ‘switching’ suddenly from one state to another, we should rather think of it as being a constant sea of different hormones and neurochemistry. Different areas of our brain show slightly different levels of activity at any given time and it’s hardly ever the same as any other time before.

When we’re playing sports or trying to produce a high output of work, we want to produce more dopamine, more adrenaline and more norepinephrine. Serotonin would be nice. That’s essentially what we ‘mean’ by flow. But when we’re washing the dishes, coming up with ideas for stories or trying to get to sleep – then this combination of neurochemicals is hardly any use at all. When we’re interacting socially we want to dial down the adrenaline and increase the serotonin while introducing some oxytocin. When we’re dreaming up ideas, switching on parts of the prefrontal cortex will be a big benefit.

The healthy and optimally performing brain then isn’t one that’s always alert and engaged (flow). Instead, it’s one that has the energy and discipline to switch on the right brain areas and the rich neurochemistry as the situation demands. Optimum performance means being able to turn up the dopamine just when you need concentration and then to switch it off when you’re relaxing in the evening.

Look after your brain health, get lots of sleep and eat right and you’ll be less likely to let your mind wander when you should be listening and less likely to get stressed when there’s no reason to be. Disciplined thinking via cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation can also help by encouraging you to treat a given situation in the right way. It’s a real skill to be able to take a situation that seems dull to your biology and to ‘trick’ yourself into treating it as though it’s highly important. Likewise though, it’s just as important to be able to switch off and to let the mind wonder as the situation

Conclusion: there is no one magical state that makes you perform better in every situation.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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