Flow States Deconstructed: Mastering Ultra Instinct Part One

By on March 2, 2018

If you’re at all interested in pushing your performance, productivity or creativity, then it’s hard not to get excited by the concept of flow states.

Flow states are states of ‘optimal human performance’. This is your performance when you are 100% focussed on a single task. This is you with zero distractions. This is you when all of your mental and physical resources are called upon.

Most of us have experienced a flow state at some point. It’s when time seems to slow down. It’s when we react with seemingly superhuman reflexes, it’s when our sense of self and doubt seems to fall away. It’s when we do our very best work, completely losing track of time as we do.

So, what’s really happening here? Well, I’ve actually addressed the psychology of flow states before. To briefly recap, the generally agreed explanation is that when a specific activity seems important and challenging enough, we allow our prefrontal cortex to switch off. This state is known technically as ‘transient hypo-frontality’. Our mind stops wandering, distractions fall away and instead we become creatures of pure instinct. There is only the present moment and the challenge in front of us.

I liken this to driving and talking. When we drive while talking on the phone, we may think that we’re still able to respond quickly but in fact we are four times more likely to have an accident because your attention is divided. Your internal monologue can do the exact same thing when you’re playing a computer game or sparring with an opponent – distracting your attention away from the present moment.

This unique pattern of activation in the brain also triggers the release of specific neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin
  • Norepinephrine
  • Anandamide

Neurochemically, it is very similar to a fight or flight response, except we are calmer and more in control. Our brainwaves slow down and enter a theta state.

And whether we are writing an essay, rapping, engaged in a conversation, snowboarding or fighting, our performance improves.

At least this is the popular narrative.

But there are issues with this idea. And that’s what I want to break down in this two part video series. Here in part one, I will be discussing the true nature of the fight or flight response. And in part two, I’ll be talking about how to hack the flow state in order to bring it on at will…

More Than One Type of Flow

For starters, I have often questioned how a flow state can be beneficial for writing an essay if it causes your prefrontal cortex to shut down. This is the part of our brain we use for planning, problem solving and reasoning. If we lose those abilities, how can we possibly work better?

The answer, it turns out, is to do with the precise part of the prefrontal cortex that shuts down. Specifically, it is an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that shuts off, while the medial prefrontal cortex remains active during creative tasks. This makes a lot of sense, seeing as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is at least partly responsible for our sense of self, whereas the medial prefrontal cortex is all about the ‘internal generation of ideas’. This was seen when looking at the brains of rappers during improvisation (report).

So, it seems that the prefrontal cortex in fact shuts down selectively rather than entirely and this is why we can still plan and be creative while being entirely focussed on a single task.

But I’m still not convinced that flow states are just ‘one thing’. Because when you are focussed deeply on writing an essay or having a fascinating conversation, you don’t experience that cascade of neurotransmitters. When was the last time you were writing an essay and your heartrate went through the roof and you started shaking?

If you want to learn how to get into a creative flow state, then check out my video on focus.

But if it is an Ultra Instinct-like high performance mode you’re interested in, what can you do?

Stress vs Flow

Here’s another reason I think it’s folly – folly I say! – to consider a flow state purely in terms of hypofrontality.

Because there’s another way you can shut down your prefrontal cortex: through stress. Any fight or flight response will cause you to produce cortisol, norepinephrine and dopamine. When was the last time you were nervous in an interview, or scared for your life, and you weren’t 100% focussed? Stress hormones shut down your prefrontal cortex and cortisol is particularly damaging to your hippocampus and your ability to store memories. This is why you stutter when speaking publicly and it’s why you get the yips in golf. This is sometimes referred to as giving yourself a ‘self-lobotomy’.

Funny how the prefrontal cortex is the root of all evil when someone is selling a book on flow states and it’s the most important part of your brain when someone is selling a stress management technique. Simplicity sells.

But are we to say every time you’re stressed, you are in a flow state? No, I didn’t think so.

Speaking anecdotally, you offer hear people advising that you ‘relax into flow’. In other words, they suggest that a flow state is triggered when you are highly stressed and then you find a state of calm within that stress.

Cortisol may completely impair your higher functioning brain regions – including the likes of the medial prefrontal cortex (study). It may negatively impact on working memory, which as I have discussed on this channel before, appears to be the seat of our visuo-spatial scratchpad and highly useful for planning and action.

From experience, the prefrontal cortex definitely can be useful during a highly focussed activity. I remember playing Transformers: Devastation and fighting Starscream in a highly drawn-out battle. We both had incredibly low health and he was chasing me as a jet, while I was in truck mode. Suddenly, I remembered that Optimus Prime had a cannon he could use to fire and so I aimed that backwards while evading his fire and took him out. It was awesome because I barely ever used the truck cannon – this was in no way muscle memory. But remembering to use it in a high pressure situation was what allowed me to win.

And while this might sound silly, decision making under pressure is actually one of the hallmarks of most elite competitive gamers.

So perhaps a flow state is really about being highly engaged with the activity and stimulating the release of excitatory neurotransmitters and hormones – but remaining calm enough at the same time in order to access higher functioning brain regions as needed.

This may explain at least partly why flow states are also associated with the slower theta brain waves.

Heartrate Variability

This may be linked to something called heartrate variability. Heartrate variability refers to the change in our heartrate during inhalation and exhalation. Far from being steady, your heart rate fluctuates all the time and this happens at least partly in response to your breath, via the vagus nerve.

When you breathe in, this cases a minor activation of the sympathetic nervous system – thereby increasing the heartrate. When you breathe out, you trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and thereby enter a more relaxed state.

If your heartrate doesn’t vary in this way, then it may suggest that you are sympathetic dominant – meaning that you are overstressed and possibly overtrained. Low heartrate variability seems to predict injury and illness.

But what’s more, is that heartrate variability also seems to predict optimal performance in elite individuals such as navy seals and special forces operatives.

Consistent top performers in fact seem to have a different physiological response to stress than average performers. It has been observed that Olympic calibre athletes and Special Operations personnel demonstrate both stronger sympathetic responses to challenge – meaning they show heightened arousal (study) and greater parasympathetic expression during rest. In other words, they are capable of being more ‘on’ during competition and more ‘off’ when they need to recover (study).

So once again, things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they at first seem. While good heartrate variability is generally considered to be a good thing and important for health and recovery, it actually seems that the top performers exhibit lower heartrate variability during extreme stressors or what is known as a ‘metronomic heart rate’. This suggests a much stronger sympathetic nervous system response (report).

And somehow top performers maintain this while also managing to remain clear headed and focussed. A doctor from Yale Medical School named Andy Morgan conducted fascinating research on the brains of men trained for mental resiliency under extreme stress and found that they produce greater amounts of neuropeptide Y (or NPY) and DHEA. DHEA is interesting because it manages to buffer the effects of cortisol on the hippocampus, perhaps allowing athletes and special forces operatives to maintain their special awareness for heightening performance during stress. DHEA is also a neurosteroid that increases the excitability of neurons – potentially helping to speed up synaptic transmissions and help our brain to run ‘faster’.

NPY meanwhile is linked with blood pressure, appetite, learning and memory and that helps to reduce the effects of norepinephrine and thereby maintain the usefulness of certain prefrontal brain regions.

Imagine turning on the gas in your brain, releasing performance-enhancing neurochemicals and losing all distraction… while at the same time being able to maintain perfect clear-headedness and possibly even enhanced reaction times.

A related term is heartrate coherence. This is plots the pattern of variability as being either erratic and all-over the place, or calm and steady. In other words, it measures how often the dip and peak in heartrate occur – rather than how extreme those differences are. In a coherent state, the breathing becomes rhythmic, as do the heart rate variations. The heart rhythm pattern becomes predictable.

What’s interesting, is that coherence also correlates with an increase in DHEA and massive decrease in cortisol (study).

And in fact there has also been a study looking for a link between coherence and flow (report). The findings are ‘mixed’, suggesting that coherence may in fact just be one facet of flow (or perhaps – more likely – that there were methodological issues at play here).

Summary

This is certainly speculation and I maintain that flow probably comes in a number of different forms. There is no one ‘perfect’ physiological response to every situation, even though it would be nice to think otherwise.

But it seems that being able to stay calm during a heightened sympathetic response seems to be key to performing optimally. While we want to increase arousal to improve vigilance and performance in dull tasks, our aim is to control that response during competition or intense stress. We must be 100% focussed to react reflexively and instinctively, while also being calm enough to prevent our brain function from shutting down. It’s the difference between being ‘psyched out’ and ‘psyched up’.

And in part two of this video, I’ll be looking at how we can tap into a flow state quickly and effectively using a number of flow hacks based on all of this theory. Actually decent ones that might work. Including nootropic stacks for inducing flow…

Stay tuned for that sometime in the next few weeks!

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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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