• Chris Varano

Flow Part 1: Peak Performance Psychology

Have you ever been so focused and immersed in an activity that you lost track of time and your sense of self? Maybe it happened during a competitive soccer game in high school. Maybe it happened during a really good writing session. Or maybe you experienced it during an amazing group brainstorm. If you have experienced this feeling of time dilation and losing the self, you probably also noticed that your performance on that specific task exceeded your usual capabilities. Ironically, it may have even seemed that this immersive peak performance experience occurred somewhat effortlessly. If you have experienced this phenomenon, then you experienced a flow state.

A flow state sounds a bit obscure, but most of us know it as “being in the zone” or a “runner’s high”. No matter how you refer to this experience, fundamentally we experience an unordinary state of consciousness that across humanity has similar characteristics. Neurobiologists and Psychologists who study flow report that common feelings of flow include time dilation, losing a sense of oneself, a sense of oneness with the universe, enhanced creativity, increased lateral thinking and learning, and heightened focus and performance.

Steven Kotler, flow researcher and New York Times best selling author has investigated the neurobiology behind this unordinary state of consciousness. Kotler has found that all flow states have similar neurobiological chemistry. When in a flow state, the brain releases more of the neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical that is often associated with pleasure. Norepinephrine is a chemical used for focus. When in flow states, we see both of these chemicals released in the brain simultaneously. In addition, there are other neurotransmitters present during a flow state such as serotonin and endorphins, making a flow state a pleasurable neurochemical concoction.

People who experience flow report losing track of time, a sense of loss of self and a quieting of the inner critic in our minds. During a flow state, researchers have found that the area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, temporarily shuts down. Psychologists and Neuroscientists refer to this phenomenon as transient hypofrontality. The prefrontal cortex is one of the key areas of the brain that has allowed us to thrive as a species. This brain area performs executive functions such as planning and decision making, as well as maintaining the neuronal connections responsible for our sense of time, self, and morality. It is also the area of the brain that can hold us back from achieving peak performance. Therefore, in times when we are in states of flow, we see elevated levels of focus, creativity, and performance from the decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex and enhanced activity in other brain areas.

Flow states also demonstrate changes in the frequency of our brain waves. As we go about our day, our brains are producing the so-called “normal” beta waves during ordinary waking hours. As we fall and stay asleep, our brains fluctuate between slower wave frequencies such as alpha, theta and delta waves. Interestingly enough, when people enter flow states, their brain waves hover the alpha-theta wave borderline. When our brains are in this alpha producing state, our brain activity changes in a way that ideas tend to flow somewhat effortlessly without self-scrutiny. The presence of Theta waves tends to show enhanced creativity.

So yes, if you have experienced a flow state, you may have experienced a somewhat indescribable but pleasurable state of consciousness. Although this state of consciousness may seem somewhat mystical, researchers such as Steven Kotler have demonstrated that there are fundamental neurobiological characteristics during this unordinary state of consciousness.

Given that flow states have these fundamental characteristics, how can we enter this unordinary state of consciousness on command? Leaders in a variety of industries are experimenting with high-tech ways to tap into flow. But how can ordinary people like you and me tap into flow?

Imagine how we could restructure our lives if we could tap into flow on command. Researchers have found that people in flow are 400% more productive. With this in mind, you could dedicate your time in flow to solving a problem with a creative approach and increase your likelihood of finding the answer in a shorter period of time. This would create more time to enjoy with family and friends, hobbies or even finding new ways to tap into flow...

This is the future of peak performance and creativity. In next’s week part 2 of this article, we will dive deep into how we can hack flow states.

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