What does it look like inside a person’s head when they are returning a tennis serve clocked at 125mph? A cellist walk through Mozart’s 1st movement in symphony 40, or the conductors metronomic guiding of the hands? Peyton Manning moving the chains in rhythm for yet another 4th quarter drive? We marvel at these showcases of raw human talent and capabilities. As a specious, they are some of our proudest moments of physical feat. In this blog post, we’ll look at what commonalities they all share in how the brain performs at these optimal levels.
Finding Flow: The Art of Passion Immersion
Flow is a mental state in which a person is performing an activity with full immersion and mental dedication. This complete absorption of thought was first popularized by positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in 1975. Mihály’s fascination with the concept of flow came from observing painters who would seemingly become lost in their work and somehow disregard their need for food, water, or even sleep.
Curious with what their mental activity looked like, Mihály and his team set out a series of tests and observations. In any given moment, there is a great deal of information present to you whether you are consciously taking note or not. This includes things like your respiration, pressure of your feet against the floor, temperature in the room, immediate information that you process with your eyes, etc.
The brain consumes over 40% of your bodies energy, so being efficient in the allocation of its processing power is pretty imperative to our evolution. In the states of flow and total immersion with an activity, there is a large scale back in mental activity in the neo-cortex, relying instead on instinctual behavior in the reptilian part of our brains. Mihály described 3 conditions to be met to experience a state of flow.
The Conditions of Flow
- Involved in an activity with clear set of goals and progress.
- The task must give immediate feedback for performance.
- A healthy balance of perceived skill with perceived difficulty.
Let’s apply this now to some various moments in which flow is more commonly experienced. You’ve undoubtably had one of those moments where time seemed to become less of an element as you navigated through a task or an activity. Sports are a very common moment. Imagine yourself on a long run and time seems to slow and sounds fade in your ears. You feel your full focus on the movement of your body and your legs pumping. You are taking note of the wind rushing against your face, the passing trees and fence lines. You are actively taking note, but aren’t holding on to those thoughts. The run is so perfect that you want it to go on forever.
Anyone who plays an instrument has also experienced this phenomenon. The notes just seemingly come to you and your fingers seem to dance and wiggle on their own, almost bewildering where the music is coming from. Having a perceived challenge that you are performing with high confidence, while equally pushing in terms of challenge level, is intrinsically very pleasing to us. Other terms often used with describing this state include: in the zone, on fire, in the moment, wired in.
In the above figure, the cross-hair point represents your equilibrium point when performing a given task. Flow is achieved when both challenge level and skill level are in high performance. A great deal of information is being processed, but the neo-cortex is taking passive activity meaning your brain is able to expend a conservative amount of energy while dialing back and relying on instincts to take control.
Although the semantics for “flow” are a relatively recent term in our linguistics history, the concept of flow has been around for centuries. Both Buddhism and Taoism speak of a mindset where there is “doing without doing” that resembles the idea of flow. Hindu texts as well stemming from Advaita philosophy and the Yoga of Knowledge describe similar states. This should hardly come as a surprise to readers, as flow is a recent term used to describe this state of mind. The concepts haven’t changed since the ancient Hindu texts, but the new etymology allows for a more familiar context and framework in modern society.
Consequences of Flow
Mihály work suggests that time spent in flow is an enhancing experience which can translate to happiness and success. Personal development and growth are intrinsically rewarding processes. We like the feeling of getting better and obtaining mastery in a task. This creates a positive state of mind from the effects of growth. Flow is experienced when the difficulty is on the brink of our top performance capabilities.
This leads to a learning experience that is challenging, yet within our confidence level of management. This where optimal learning takes places and the furthering of a skill is best achieved. You can see how it can become very cyclical. Flow experiences help foster better performance, and better performance helps improve that chance of experiencing a state of flow.
That’s why there is such an importance in having goals and direction of a desirable outcome.
Experiencing Flow in Your Life
Chances are you’ve already experienced flow at sometime in your life. Flow comes from intrinsically rewarding work. That’s one of the many reasons of why it’s so important to find work your passionate about as well as developing hobbies and skill sets that you find intrinsically rewarding. Chances are you’ve already experienced flow at sometime in your life; when you’re in a flow state:
- an hour can pass by in the blink of an eye
- you feel what you’re doing is important
- you’re not self-conscious
- action and awareness merge
- you feel in full control
- the experience is intrinsically rewarding
Flow is in many ways synonymous with mindfulness. You cannot simply say to yourself, “ok, I am going to start being mindful now.” You can, however, start making incremental progress and self reminders throughout the day. Flow in many ways works the same ways; it isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch.
If you want to bring flow to your life, you have to begin by doing things your passionate about. In my life, some examples of what this includes is both exercising and jamming out on the piano. Think back to the 3 conditions of how a state of flow is produced:
- clear set of goals, e.g. do 3 more muscle ups than last time, or learn the jazz F scale.
- immediate feedback, e.g. I can observe the form I’m using and my breathing, or I can hear and feel how my music is sounding.
- balance between perceived skill with perceived difficulty, e.g. I’m pushing myself to do more reps and know I can do it, or I want to spice up the beat I’ve been working on by adding extra half steps between the off beat or a twist of hip hop to the sound.
These conditions all go in to creating those time less instances where you are lost in the moment and producing your best work. Music literally seems to just come to your fingers as you dance around on the scales. You feel currents of energy rippling through you providing more strength than you’d normally have.
It isn’t always easily achieved, but a state of flow leads to some beautiful things.