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The flow state has been popularised for its unparalleled boost to performance, focus, and productivity but what is often left unmentioned is the hallmark sense of effortlessness and clarity you experience when your brain and body is functioning optimally.
Do you ever get those days where it feels as if your brain is all fuzzy, like television static? Or you feel like you just need to ‘wake up’ because even though you got out of bed 4 hours ago, it feels like your brain didn’t.
Being in Flow is the exact opposite of that. There's no fuzziness, no blur, your thoughts are clear and united towards a singular goal. There is fluidity within your entire brain and body. Signals travel between the two seamlessly, unhindered like a perfectly oiled machine. With such limited hesitation and internal conflict, the sensation begins to feel like your thoughts and actions merge into one singular unit.
That is what being in 'flow' is like. There is no internal conflict, no hesitation, no self-doubt, just clarity, confidence, and curiosity.
This is what makes me passionate about flow. It can provide you with such an incredibly therapeutic moment with your pure self, with nothing in the way. No matter how bad of a day you are having, if you can find time for flow, maybe in a game of pick-up basketball or listening to music, you can get away from all of that and have some time with your true self.
“The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow - the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” - Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
The science behind this experience tells us a lot. These sensations in flow are not only due to the mastery of switching between systems but also a rare synchronisation of specific neuroanatomical structures within the brain. There is such a level of internal coherence in the brain that it is in complete harmony.
In flow, specific reward networks and key neural structures which are responsible for attentional and cognitive control (the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and left anterior inferior frontal gyrus/IFG) power up and sync up with each other. What this means is that there is a deep sense of cognitive control and an incredibly highly efficient ‘switching on’ of our abilities to focus on goal-directed activity. Simultaneously, there is a synchronous ‘switching off’ of inhibiting areas such as self-conscious control of movement.
This is why we can become highly committed and focused towards the task at hand without being self-conscious and held down by our inner critic. Instead, we are free to dance in public without a shred of thought of what others think.
A large part of this sensation is due to the parts of our medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DPC) which become inhibited. This results in a reduction of emotionally anchored processing and self-referential processing during decision-making processes which usually get in between us, and our true selves.
Furthermore, we are not held back by our emotional states or shackled down to fit with how we think we should be acting; instead we act intuitively, as we are designed to act. The result is that we can think clearer, make faster decisions, and feel liberated.
The neuroanatomical phenomenon doesn’t stop here. Our left putamen, a part of the brain responsible for preparing and supporting the movement of our limbs becomes hyperactive, improving our ability to calculate outcome probabilities and respond both effectively and efficiently.
Additionally, our somatosensory networks become synchronised resulting in a heightened sensory experience. This helps us to become ever more present, our senses more alert, and absorbed into the moment. This collective synchronisation creates unparalleled efficiency and a biologically faster, more adaptable, and more capable human being.
In sum, this level of neurological harmony unleashes our capability, our peak level of functioning. Unladen by the processing of the experience, our attention is solely focused on advancing our progression, becoming more creative in every moment and playing with the knife's edge. When our brain is synced up we are able to push our perceptions of ‘normal’ and surprise ourselves with what we can achieve.
And yet, despite all of these ‘supernatural’ sensations, it feels so incredibly natural, like we are meant to feel like this all of the time. Such an immeasurable and inexplicable sense of purpose and fulfilment often arises from flow experiences and it is fascinating. Yet most people are unaware of these benefits of being in the “zone” and if they are, it is always made secondary to its performance enhancing effects.
In this high-performance world we live in it's easy to see why this is what attracts many to flow. It’s important to remember that the flow state was coined after an experiment on the study of peak experiences, and that peak performance is a by-product of it.
This article was to open your eyes to the sometimes forgotten aspect of flow. It is clearly still the case that if you are a performer in any craft flow training is incredibly vital to your success. However, let's not forget about the equally, if not more, incredible holistic experience that being in flow gifts you with.
Even if you somehow don’t need to perform in any way, you must research flow in order to see for yourself what it can do for you. It can be the necessary break from a high-stress, high achieving society as well as the method for unlocking your ultimate performance at the same time.
Those amazing cases where dedicated practice meets moments of flow, people can challenge a decade of scientific understanding in a single event. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, composed his first symphony when he was eight years old, or how Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17 years old.
Incredible performances that seem to shock every critique at the time, occur not because they are superhuman, any fMRi would reveal them to be the same as anyone of their age and gender. These performances occur because of their ability to find an extreme state of internal harmony during these high stakes environments when most hesitate or self-doubt.
Although it may be too late for you to win Wimbledon at 17, or compose your first symphony at eight years old, learning what the flow state is and experiencing the sensation first hand may quite possibly change your life. If you are a performer in any craft, it is vital to your success, and even if you are not, to simply improve the quality of your life experiences and for its therapeutic benefits you must explore this world of flow.
Bye for now,
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