In the Zone: Flow State

When someone says that they are “in the zone,” it is taken to mean that they are merely in a state where their task is going well. There is however a state of mind known in psychology as “flow state” where all of one’s focus is so dedicated to a task that the outside world ceases to be perceived. This state is an enviable one for many people who have achieved it. Athletes seek to find a perfect rush, authors wish to be nothing more than the words flowing onto a page, even gamers find themselves so involved with a video game that hours pass without notice.

The Key to Happiness

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont University, has led the discussion of the flow state. He has postulated in numerous works and talks that achieving a flow state is the key to happiness. Indeed, if one were to ask someone who has achieved a flow state, it can be a euphoric experience. When Csíkszentmihályi performed a large-scale psychological study in the 1970s that led him to begin writing about the existence of flow state, he did so by asking a wide variety of people in a wide variety of professions about the time in their lives when they had felt and performed their best. Despite the worldwide search among professions varying from composers to shepherds, a commonality was found: people were happiest when they reached this state where nothing else existed but the pleasure in their task. Further study of the neurobiology of flow state found it could be attributed to three main measurable causes: increase in neurotransmitters linked to pleasure, increased theta brain wave activity, and temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex.

The Biology of Flow

The brain relies on constant chemical releases for communication. When in flow state, it becomes flooded with norepinephrine, endorphins, serotonin, andadamide, and dopamine. While working in concert, this combination enables the brain to feel pleasure, increase pattern recognition and lateral thinking, and heighten focus. Along with a measured increase of neurotransmitters, a distinct pattern of brain waves was noted in those experiencing flow. Theta brain waves are associated with REM sleep–the time during which dreams take place. This wave originates from the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated spatial navigation and the combination of short- and long-term memories. While the exact mechanism of theta rhythm is not precisely known, it has been postulated to be involved in spatial learning as well as indicative of the integration of motor output and sensory input. The third evident neurological sign of flow, the temporary deactivation of the preferential cortex, is also called transient hypofrontality. The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain responsible for executive function: personality, decision-making, moderating behavior, and planning. Transient hypofrontality is not exclusive to flow state; it has also been noticed in most altered states of consciousness, from dreaming to drug trips.

The Downside of Flow

Despite or perhaps because of the euphoric state that it brings, flow does have a dark side. Much has been made in the news of video gamers who become so hyper-focused on their task that they neglect their own personal well-being to the detriment of their health. While these cases cannot positively be called flow, a similar lack of self-care can occasionally be seen in those who experience a flow state for extended periods of time. In the case of athletes and extreme sports enthusiasts, chasing an elusive and perfect “high” has been known to lead to both a lack of self-care and an increase in risky behaviors. For instance, runners may not notice injuries due to the increase of dopamine blocking pain during flow state, or base jumpers may go to more dangerous locations in order to maximize their time in flow. This may be why blogger and musician J.D. Moyer has begun referring to this state as “super-momentum”–a state that not only feels euphoric, but can also be felt as a burst of energy with a sense of letdown when it is over.

Managing Flow

The key, as in all things, is moderation. One cannot exist in a constant state of flow. No matter how good it feels, the brain cannot sustain this state, nor should it. At the same time it is highly desirable to find a state where one’s endeavors come naturally and when one feels happy with their task. Author Rachel Aaron finds flow useful in her writing, as the words come quickly when she enjoys what she is writing and feels that the sections that feel boring would likewise be boring to readers. Musicians tell of times when their improvisation comes effortlessly. Flow definitely seems like a goal to be achieved. But like anything in life, it should never be chased at the detriment to one’s well-being.

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