Activating A State of Flow ~ Part II

November 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

By Tai Carmen

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“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

“The river is everywhere.” ~ Hermann Hesse, “Siddhartha”

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?

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Kendall Conrad

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.

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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.

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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.

Florida State University student practicing on the tightrope, photo: Loomis Dean, 1952

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.

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8. Pattern recognition.

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.

9. Caffein.

Caffeine’s effect on the brain causes increased neuron firing & facilitates dopamine flow.

10. Altrusim. 

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.

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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.”)

Gabriel Moreno,Gabriel Moreno

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!

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**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!)

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Activating A State Of Flow

October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

By: Tai Carmen

wave art“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates.” ~Steven Kotler

“When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction—whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music—she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. “ ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is that feeling of being in “the zone,” when every choice you make lands perfectly, gaining momentum & feeding itself. The musician in the groove, the surfer united with the wave. The great conversation in which you lose track of time.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who first pioneered the concept of “flow” as a study—has observed the commonality between all these states of optimal performance. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” summarizes flow as a state of “near-perfect decision-making.”

Harold Eugene EdgertonHarold Eugene Edgerton

Csikszentmihalyi performed the largest global happiness survey to date. “He talked to everybody that he could possibly imagine,” relays Kotler.

“From Detroit assembly line workers to Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Navajo sheep herders, expert dancers, expert neurosurgeons. Everybody agreed that when they felt their best and were at their best, they felt flowy. Every decision, every action led perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly to the next. That’s where the term comes from.”

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Neurobiolgically, it is possible to pinpoint exactly what is happening during flow states: the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates. This is the area responsible for executive functioning or self-monitering. Management of cognitive processes like the judgement of good & bad/better & best, as well a social control—like the ability to regulate urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. We become less self-critical & more courageous.

The brain—taking up just 2% of our body weight & using 20% of our energy—is required to be extremely energy efficient. When resources are needed for concentration & attention, it performs an efficiency exchange & switches to subconscious processes, which bypass the inner critic & draws on a larger reservoir of knowledge.

neil craverNeil Craver, from the “OmniPhantasmic” series

During flow the brain releases a cascade of pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide & serotonin flood our system. These chemicals—the most addictive cocktail the brain can produce—have considerable impact on creativity.

“Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information,” details Kotler. “They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”

Lena Smirnova | mountains, sky and geometric northern lightsLena Smirnova 

When the brain encounters the overwhelming complexity of a starry sky or a grand canyon, “reality seems to pause, if only for a second,” relates Kotler. “The conscious mind—what’s technically called the ‘explicit system’—can only hold about seven bits of information at once. This is why phone numbers are only seven digits long.

“But the subconscious mind—the ‘implicit system’—has no such limit. Thus, when we encounter overwhelming complexity, we trade conscious processing for subconscious processing.” (“The Rise of Superman.”)

e017198caa8422362b0fe3f3e7f188dc ‘Man Juggling His Own Head. Saint Thomas D’Aquin. 1880 

Flow state can be broken down into a four stage cycle.

The first is struggle. Though it feels like the opposite of flow, this is the brainstorming stage, the period of pushing, reaching, training. Overloading the brain with information or taxing the body with new challenges.

“Most people never push this first stage far enough,” notes Kotler, “which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow experience.”

Relaxation is the second stage.

“This is when you take your mind off the problem entirely, taking a break, going for a walk or doing something physical,” remarks Kotler. He notes that it’s not the same as watching television or some other distraction that keeps your brain busy. “It’s about relaxing the brain so the conscious mind lets the subconscious mind take over. Many people miss this break and as a result are constantly in overload and burnout, missing flow altogether.”

1082079850Neil Craver, from the “OmniPhantasmic” series

The third stage is Flow—that blissful, much-sought state of being. This is the experience of optimal performance. Self & time disappear. The inner critic takes a break. Action & awareness become one. Preparation meets relaxation & expresses itself almost magically. Inspiration takes over.

Consolidation concludes the cycle. Learning & memory are amplified, synthesizing the experience of flow & folding it back into your subconscious in preparation for returning to stage one. As the feel-good neurochemicals of flow recede, it can be easy to “go on a down,” Kotler notes, which leads to an emotional reaction—& often self-sabatoge—in an attempt to regain the flow state.

“The key here is not to let this stress block the learning or reverse the results of being in flow, but to move smoothly back to the next phase of struggle and repeat the cycle.”

Bohumil KröhnBohumil Kröhn

Part Two Coming Soon!

*I’d like to thank my dear friend & fellow blogger Alisha Westerman (check out her blog!) for brining my attention to Steven Kotler’s very interesting podcast: Steven Kotler & The Rise of Superman. 


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