Hack Your Flow: Understanding Flow Cycles

↑ We now know that flow works not like an on-off switch but in a four-part cycle. Understanding these cycles can help you to more often access flow. Don’t miss the related videos below. ↓

Transcript: Flow Genome Project – what we’ve discovered when people want more flow in their lives, the number one thing we can tell them is that there is a flow cycle. So the old idea about flow was that it was a binary. It was like a light switch. You were either in the zone or you were out of the zone. What we now know is that flow is a four part cycle and you have to move through all four parts of the cycle before you can return to the flow state itself. The neurobiology of the flow cycle and the actual research came out of Herb Benson’s work at Harvard. He kind of laid the foundation for it. But what we’ve discovered is at the front end of the flow state there’s a struggle phase. This is a loading phase. You are loading, then overloading the brain with information. For a baseball player this is learning to swing a bat at a ball. For a writer planning a new book. This is when you’re doing interviews. This is when you’re reading, it’s when you’re diagramming structure and things like that. It’s very unpleasant as a general rule. So even though flow may be the most desirable and pleasant state on earth, the actual flow cycle itself starts with a very unpleasant state known as struggle.

From struggle you move into release. This literally means you want to take your mind off the problem. So what happens in flow is we are trading conscious processing which is slow, has very limited RAM, right, the working memory can only hold about four items at once, and is very energy inefficient. For subconscious processing which his extremely fast and is very energy efficient and has pretty much endless RAM. So to do that you have to move from struggle, you have to let – stop thinking about what you were trying to think about basically. You take your mind off the problem, you go for long walks, gardening works very well, building models works very, very well. Albert Einstein famously used to row a boat into the middle of Lake Geneva and stare at the clouds, right. Once you can take your mind off the problem and, by the way, one of the only things that you can’t do to move through release is watch television. It actually changes your brainwaves in a way that it will block flow. But once you move from release there’s actually underneath the surface neurobiologically there’s a global release of nitric oxide which is a gas of signaling molecules found everywhere in the body. This flushes all the stress hormones out of your system and replaces them with kind of feel good performance enhancing neurochemicals like dopamine and anandamide and serotonin and endorphins which underpin the flow state as well. You’re in the flow state. This is the third stage in the struggle. And on the back end of the flow state there is actually a recovery phase. And this is really, really, really critical. So you go from this amazing high of flow to a very deep low that shows up in recovery. A lot of this is that all those feel good neurochemicals have drained out of your system.

It takes certain vitamins and minerals and sunlight and things like that to rebuild them. So the recovery phase on the back end of the flow state is actually very, very unpleasant as well. And if you really want to hack flow you need to learn how to struggle better and you need to learn how to recover better. And one of the most important things in recovery is you have to – you need some emotional fortitude, some grit. You have to basically hold on to your emotions, not get stressed out at the fact that you know longer feel like Superman. And the main reason – well two reasons for this is one, if you get too stressed out and feeling low you’re going to start producing cortisol. A little bit is fine, too much of it blocks the accelerated learning that comes with flow. So you will actually get the short term benefit of the flow state itself but you won’t get the long term benefit, the accelerated learning that you get in flow. The other problem is if you have to move from recovery back into struggle and you’re bummed out at no longer being in flow during the recovery phase, it’s very hard to get up for the difficult fight of struggle that follows…

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Transcript: Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness. A state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. It refers to those moments of total absorption when we get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. So our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness, they vanish. Time dilates which means sometimes it slows down. You get that freeze frame effect familiar to any of you who have seen the matrix or been in a car crash. Sometimes it speeds up and five hours will pass by in like five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof. Underneath the flow state is a complicated mass of neurobiology. There are fundamental changes in neuroanatomy – which is where in the brain something’s taking place, neurochemistry and neuroelectricity which is the two ways the brain communicates with itself. The most prominent of this is the neuroanatomical changes.

So the old idea about ultimate performance – “flow” is what’s known as the ten percent brain myth. The idea that we’re only using ten percent of our brain at any one time so ultimate performance must obviously be the full brain firing on all cylinders. And it turns out we had it exactly backwards. In flow parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down, shutting down. The technical term for this is transient, meaning temporary, hypo frontality. Hypo – H – Y – P – O – it’s the opposite of hyper means to slow down, to shut down, to deactivate. And frontality is the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that houses your higher cognitive functions, your sense of morality, your sense of will, your sense of self. All that shuts down so, for example, why does time pass so strangely in flow? Because David Eagleman discovered that time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. When parts of it start to wink out we can no longer separate past from present from future and we’re plunged into what researchers call the deep now.

Transient hypofrontality is interesting. It was discovered back in the nineties and it had a very negative connotation, it was found in schizophrenics and drug addicts. And then in the early two thousands Aaron Dietrich who was then at Georgia Tech discovered or hypothesized that transient hypofrontality actually underpins every altered state – dreaming, meditation, flow, drug addiction – it doesn’t really matter. And then in 2007, 2008 Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins working with first jazz musicians and second with rappers was looking at flow in those contexts and found that the prefrontal cortex was shutting down as well. Though depending on the altered state you get different parts are shut down. Like in flow one of the most prominent examples is the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. It shuts down in flow. This is the part of the brain that houses your inner critic, that nagging defeatist always on voice in your head turns off in flow. And as a result we feel this is liberation right. We are finally getting out of our own way. We’re free of ourselves. Creativity goes up. Risk taking goes up and we feel amazing.

The project at the Flow Genome Project – my mission for the past 15 years has been sort of to reclaim flow research from the hippie community, from the new age community and put it back on a really hard science footing. And really what that took was flow research has been going on continuously at kind of both here in the United State and Europe all over. And it really just took synthesizing all the information and bringing it together and putting it on a hard and neurobiological footing…

Transcript: Besides neuroanatomical changes in flow there are neurochemical changes, right. The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals, right. So they make you faster, stronger, quicker and they do the same thing with your brain. In the front end of a flow state you take in more information, you process it more deeply meaning you process it using more parts of your brain and you process it more quickly. There’s some debate about this but it does appear that you process it more quickly. This is norepinephrine and dopamine. So when people enter a flow state they talk about feeling like they’re senses are incredibly heightened. This is the performance enhancing aspect of norepinephrine and dopamine.

Where these chemicals really come in handy is how they affect motivation, creativity and learning. We’ll start with motivation. Besides being performance enhancing chemicals these are obviously all feel good drugs, right. These five chemicals are the most potent feel good drugs the brain can produce. As a result flow is considered the most addictive state on earth. Scientists don’t like the word addictive so instead they use autotelic. When something is autotelic it is an end in itself. What it means is that once an experience starts producing flow we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of it which is why researchers now believe flow is the source code of intrinsic motivation. Another thing that those neurochemicals do is they augment the creative process. So creativity is always recombinantory. It’s the product of novel information, bumping into old thoughts to create something startlingly new. So if you want to amplify creativity, you want to amplify every aspect of that process. Again, the neurochemicals help. So on the front end of the flow state when you get norepinephrine and dopamine they’re tightening focus so you are taking in more information per second. So you are boosting that part of the creative process. Norepinephrine and dopamine do something else in the brain which is they lower signal to noise ratio so you detect more patterns. They jack up pattern recognition so our ability to link ideas together is also an enhancer. Taking in more information we can link it together.

Anandamide which is another chemical that shows up in flow doesn’t just promote pattern recognition. It promotes lateral thinking. So pattern recognition is more or less the linking of familiar ideas together. Lateral thinking is the linking of very disparate ideas together, right. So more information per second, all kinds of pattern recognition, lateral thinking. All of it surrounds the creative process and amplifies all of it which is why, for example, studies run by my organization, the Flow Genome Project, we found creativity is increased 500 to 700 percent. To give you another example in a recent Australian study they took 42 people, gave them a very tricky brainteaser to solve, the kind that needs very creative problem solving. Nobody could solve the problem. They induced flow artificially using transcranial magnetic stimulation to basically knock out the prefrontal cortex. They induced artificial transient hypofrontality technically.
As a result, 23 people solved the problem in record time. So massively amplified motivation, massively amplified creativity. The last thing flow does that’s really important is it jacks up learning…

Transcript: We’ve talked about neuroanatomy and we’ve talked about neurochemistry. The last bit is neuroelectricity. So what we now know happens in flow is our brainwaves which are kind of normally in waking consciousness up in beta – this is a fast moving wave. It gets really excited and you go up to kind of into stress responses, right. It moves down to alpha which is a daydreaming mode and then below that is theta. Theta is only accessible in the hypnagogic state as we’re starting to fall asleep or in dreaming, in REM sleep. Flow takes place on the border between alpha and theta. It just kind of hovers there so it’s a radical change in normal brain function. But something else really, really cool happens. So we talked earlier about how creativity is enhanced in flow. One of the other ways it is enhanced is when you’re on the border between alpha and theta because you’re in theta you can get a gamma spike. Gamma is coupled to the theta wave. It’s a very fast moving wave and it only shows up when ideas are coming together, when we have that aha moment, right. That’s a gamma spike. Gamma’s coupled with theta so it can only show up – you can only get that aha moment if you’re in theta. And flow by pushing us to the borderline between alpha and theta sort of sets us up to have massive startling insights…

Transcript: What we’ve learned lately is that there are 17 triggers for flow. These are preconditions that bring on more flow. And when you strip them all down flow follows focus, right. It is a state that can only show up in the now, in the present tense. So what all these triggers are ways of driving our attention into the now. To put it more formally they’re the ways evolution shaped our brain to pay attention to the moment. The easiest way to have flow and the people who are most successful at it have built their lives around these triggers. So let me give you a couple of examples. There are three environmental triggers or external triggers that precipitate flow. The first of them is most obvious. It’s high consequences. When there’s a lot of risk in the environment we pay more attention to what’s going on. This is obvious in action and adventure sports which are very, very high in flow, produce a lot of flow so obviously a lot of high consequences in action and adventure sports.

When I talk to people who are not athletes, who are not interested in this, the interesting thing is you don’t need physical risk. You do need risk because it focuses attention but you can replace the physical risk with emotional risk, intellectual risk, creative risk, social risk. Social risk works extremely well because the brain cannot tell the difference between social fear and social pain and physical fear and physical pain. They’re processed in the exact same structures and it sounds weird until you realize that go back 300 years ago and exile meaning social banishment – you screwed up socially, the tribe kicked you out. It was a capital crime, it was capital punishment, you couldn’t exist really outside of the tribe unless maybe you were Daniel Boone, right. We process social fear the same place we process physical fear which is why, for example, fear of public speaking is the number one fear in the world and it’s not, say, getting mauled by a grizzly bear, right…

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