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Flow State (Pt. 1/2): how does it boosts our performance, learning & creativity?

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Ever heard of flow state?

I'll hazard a guess and say - thought so.. but even if you haven't, there's a good chance that you've experienced it before. Let's dig in.

So, what is Flow State?

Flow State is a phenomenon - popularised by positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970's - where, under the right conditions, one is able to become fully immersed in what they are doing. The activity at hand consumes 100% of our attention, we are motivated towards it, and are energised by the pursuit.

"...this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity. You know exactly what you want to do from one moment to another."
- Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. TED Talk, 2004

Is this ringing any bells?

It's that sweet spot where you arrive at the apex of attention, effort & purpose, which unleashes a flowing (pun absolutely and shamelessly intended) cascade of important neurochemicals, or "good brain stuff", which is categorised by significantly heightened focus and performance, both physical and mental.

Sounds pretty good, eh? Even better than good, some might say:

"Flow State is the most addictive state on Earth."

Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Institute.

A phenomenon such as Flow State, like any other topic that we've discussed in previous posts, is most useful when we actually take the time to understand what is happening to us internally. Once we understand the mechanisms behind flow, we can sooner leverage it to assist us in our day-to-day lives. So bare with me now - I'll try my best.

So, what happens during Flow State?

Okay, so let's pretend that we're just entered a flow state. By now we're metaphorically bathing in a rich and nutritious bath of those aforementioned neurochemicals. Some of which we are all too familiar with, like our old friends dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine/norepinephrine.

To make it a bit easier, let's first split it into what we should be feeling, then break down why this would be the case.

Increased Motivation

Dopamine is the universal molecule of motivation. How driven & motivated we are towards completing a task, or pursuing a goal, is directly correlated with the amount of dopamine we have circulating within us. So, as levels of dopamine spike during flow states, it is no surprised that we experience a stark increase in our drive towards the task at hand while in flow.

Motivation is enhanced during flow state.

Enhanced Performance

One key characteristic of flow state is an enhancement in our performance due to a heightening of our senses, our cognitive processing capabilities, and our physical motors skills. But, these improvements don't just occur spontaneously. They are the product of the wave of neurochemicals that are present during flow. To break it down a little further, some example changes include:


Neurochemical Origin

Narrowing of our focus

Increase in our levels of epinephrine & norepinephrine

Increase in energy levels

Increase in our levels of epinephrine & norepinephrine

Increased speed of information processing

Increase in our levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine & dopamine

This is really just brushing the surface of the physiological changes that occur with the presence of these molecules. But, you can see how the culmination of the associated ramping-up of our internal processes, as seen above, would contribute to an overall increase in our cognitive and physical performance.

Performance is enhanced during flow state.

Enhanced Creativity

Creativity, in all of its subjective glory, is inherently tough to quantify. Many of us who strive for a heightened sense of creativity, be it for professional or personal pursuits, are no doubt familiar with the cognitive and imagination-restricting roadblocks that lie on the path.

So why is flow state so conducive to heightened creativity?

Again, we observe the neurochemical origins..

At the beginning of flow, we are inundated by waves of epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. It is these chemicals that stimulate a reduction in what is called the signal to noise ratio. Imagine the signal as a useful piece of information that we actually want to process, and imagine the noise as basically anything else that is not important for the task at hand.

To add another key player into the mix - during flow, we experience an increase in the levels of a molecule called Anadamine. It is the presence of Anadamine that promotes an increase in our ability to recognise patterns - which is the linking of familiar ideas together - as well as our ability to think laterally - which is the linking together of very disparate ideas.

So, to pull it all together, as the signals are amplified and the noise is reduced (E/NE, Dopamine), we are able to more-clearly identify patterns between important pieces of information (Anadamine). It is this pattern recognition that allows for new associations to be made, theories to be formulated, and creativity around a certain domain to be exercised.

Creativity is enhanced during flow state.

Enhanced Ability to Learn

Our ability to learn anything - irrespective of the topic - is dependent upon our ability to shift pieces of information from the holding (short term memory) to our long term storage (long term memory). If information never underwent this transitional process, then mastery of new skills or domains would be rendered impossible.

An important component within this transition is the role of the aforementioned neurochemicals. During everyday life, these neurochemicals will "tag" certain experiences that are deemed important or necessary for storage. Imagine a warehouse full of boxes where a worker slaps a big, colourful sticker on selected items that says "Important - Store for later.". I doubt that I need to explain the analogy any further.

So, imagine again that we're in flow state and we are metaphorically filled to the brim with these important neurochemicals. The more neurochemicals that show up during experience, the higher chance that the piece of information gets tagged and subsequently moved from holding to storage. Thus, learning occurs.

Learning is enhanced during flow state.

In a conscious effort to not overwhelm you with information while also facilitating a mild cliff-hanger-like effect, I'll leave it there for today. Tune back in at the next instalment to find out how we can best access flow state using common & easily-implementable psychological & social triggers.

Flow on, then.

Cover image: @Molly Blackbird

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