November 9, 2014 § 4 Comments
“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we both feel & perform our best. We all know & love the experience of being “in the zone.” As we examined in PART I, flow is a neurochemically measurable phenomenon, which can be broken down into four distinct stages (see Part 1).
But what creates this state & can we induce it?
Studies have identified multiple triggers for flow.
1. Intensely focused attention.
Producing flow requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration. Flow demands singular tasks & (except in cases where group flow is the goal) solitude. Multi-tasking is out. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the pioneering “Flow,” says: “It is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.”
2. Clear goals.
Knowing what you’re doing & why you’re doing it. For example, a basketball player knows the rules of the game. The artist has some kind of vision, or idea of what she wants to express, before setting out on the journey of creation.
When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t waste energy wondering what it has to do next, allowing focus to stay pinned to the present moment.
3. Immediate feedback.
Where clear goals tell us what we are doing, immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. Real time consequences to our choices—whether it’s the rock-climber stumbling, or the drummer missing a beat—provides guidance to refine our attention & technique.
4. Balanced challenge/skills ration.
Csikszentmihalyi famously asserted: “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” adds: “If the task is too dull, attention disengages & action & awareness can not merge. If the task is too hard, fear starts to spike & we begin looking for ways to extricate ourselves from the situation.”
Ideally, the requirements of the task at hand should be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table, but not too much greater.
5. High Consequences/Risk
Elevated risk levels—whether physical, social, creative or emotional—drive us home to the moment. As the body readies for fight or flight, it releases performance enhancing endorphins which are key ingredients in the neurochemical cocktail of flow.
The lives of extreme sports athletes, like rock-climbers & snowboarders, literally depend on being “in the zone.” “When pushing the limits of human performance,” Kotler notes, “the choice is stark: flow or die.” Because of this extreme demand for flow, action/adventure sports athletes have become prime test subjects for studies on flow.
However, high consequences don’t need to take the form of physical danger to trigger flow. The risk can also be social, such as public speaking, or creative, such as taking an artistic risk.
6. Rich environment.
An environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability & complexity captures our attention, inducing focus, which in turn stimulates flow.
7. Physical excercise.
In physical exercise, our body produces endorphins that contribute to the neurochemical cocktail we experience as flow. Excercise helps us get out of our heads (the second stage of flow, see part 1) & experience deep embodiment.
Steven Kotler tells the story of struggling with writer’s block for months, then clicking into a flow state while skiing. Afterwards, he went straight to his office, sat down at his chair, and proceeded to write for two weeks, finishing the book.
Mankind is hardwired to identify meaningful correspondences. So much so that we can be subject to false pattern recognition, or apophenia—the impression of a pattern or meaning where there is none, such as seeing faces in the clouds. This tendency serves us well for creativity! Seeing new patterns & connections releases pleasure-enhancing neurochemicals.
Caffeine’s effect on the brain causes increased neuron firing & facilitates dopamine flow.
Psychologists have coined the term “helper’s high” to describe the euphoric feeling—followed by a longer period of calmness—experienced after performing a kind act.
There’s evidence in brain studies of a “compassion-altruism axis.” Studies show high levels of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin in people who are very generous toward others. Kindness triggers the brain’s reward circuitry, releasing “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine & endorphins, which, when combined with a handful of the above triggers, facilitate flow.
There are also noteworthy parallels between the flow state & the mystical experience.
The disappearance of a sense of self & time, the emergence of sudden, deep insight; a feeling of becoming one with the task at hand, of being part of something larger; these are all hallmarks of the satori experience. (See Parallax’s “Beyond Division: Studies in Bliss.”)
So don’t be afraid to take a risk!
And remember: if you’re struggling at the onset of a project, you’re not failing, you’re just in the first stage of flow!
**Watch a fascinating interview with flow expert Steven Kotler here.
**Get your “flow profile” here for tips on your flow type. (Mine was very accurate!)