This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
There’s this special place our brains take us for brief moments. We lose ourselves, become capable of more than just the normal.
You’ve probably heard it called something like being in the zone; you’ve probably experienced it, too. That time you shook two defenders to score a clutch goal; the first time you nailed that guitar solo. Maybe the time you blazed through stack of paperwork without noticing a half-hour had gone by.
What happens in our brains when we’re in that flow state — that absolute laser focus? Belgian neuroscientist Guy Cheron wanted to find out — and his experiment started with a man on a tightrope
“For the tightrope, it’s very clear,” Cheron said. “If you do a mistake, you fall.”
There’s a video of this: You can see the walker is on one end of a cable set up in a town square, maybe 30 feet off the ground. He’s wearing all white except for a red and black cap over his head with all these wires coming out of it. It’s an Electroencephalography (EEG) device measuring his brain electricity.
The performance is perfect, one foot following the other, eyes forward, balance pole held firm — until about the halfway point. For some reason, the line attached to the walker’s safety harness snags, stopping him in his tracks.
“… And you need to go backward and to sit on the cable and solve the problem,” Cheron said.
“We are lucky,” he said, because that little snag showed up in the tightrope walker’s brain scan data. To anyone just watching the performance, before and after the hitch, it didn’t seem to change at all.
“He stays in equilibrium, no problem,” Cheron said. “He walks at the same velocity with the same timing.”
But the EEG brain scan told a different story.
“After he met some difficulties, this induces stress in this moment. He is then preoccupied by [this] the rest of the performance,” Cheron said.
While the tightrope walker’s feet kept landing in the right place, his head space was all wrong. He had been pulled out of the flow state. And that gave Cheron some information on where flow lives in the brain.
“It’s linked to two different areas in the brain, which are activated at this time. This loop, this network, we discovered, activates only when you arrive just close to the flow state,” he said.
Cheron’s research is probably the most cutting-edge looking at flow today, definitely the closest to measuring flow from within the body. But folks have been chasing the flow state in some way or another for a long time.
‘From Navajo sheep farmers, to factory workers’
Rian Doris is an executive at the Flow Research Collective in California, which partners with universities and businesses and does flow state consulting and training. There are testimonials of praise from the likes of Bill Clinton and Elon Musk on its website.
“Arguably, people have been experiencing and chasing flow states since, I mean, the beginning of time in certain respects,” he said. “Even in old ancient spiritual texts.”
The term “flow state” was coined only in the 1970s, Doris said, by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who had actually been studying something closer to happiness. Basically he’d look at a vast, varied pool of people.
“From Navajo sheep farmers, to factory workers, to musicians and creatives,” Doris said.
And Csikszentmihalyi would ask these people what were the moments where they felt at their best. A common thread was a state of timeless immersion in some task.
“They all found themselves achieving this state where things felt, ‘flowy.’ Time dilates, action awareness merge, concentration goes through the roof,” Doris said. “You become totally and utterly absorbed in what it is that you’re doing, and the experience feels literally flowing.”
Csikszentmihalyi found a correlation between overall life satisfaction and time spent in flow states. More recent research has shown positive effects on mood and cognition for up to three days after a flow state.
The Flow Collective is trying to essentially bottle flow — commodify it in large part for executives and entrepreneurs —make it closer to something you can induce on command. Although don’t expect to actually be able to buy a bottle of flow.
“So a lot of people ask about, you know, is Adderall the same as a flow state? Is taking some kind of stimulant that does massively heighten focus and increase attentional capacities? Is that the same as the flow state?” Doris said.
Apparently, no. Doris says you get the focus of a flow state, but miss out on the creativity of one. There’s a kind of disinhibition in flow states that allows for more wild thinking.
“So your normal sense of self, your sense of I, your sense of you being the one doing something has gone offline and other elements of the brain are more active within a flow state,” Doris said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks have also looked to psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD for a chemical flow state. Doris said it’s a maybe, but we don’t know enough.
Our understanding of the neurochemistry of flow is kind of like a half-written recipe. Doris said researchers only know some of the ingredients.
“Dopamine is associated with creativity in different respects, serotonin is obviously associated with positive mood and positive effect,” he said. “They increase during flow.”
So does norepinephrine.
“It’s a focusing mechanism,” Doris said. “It drives attention into the now, and again that happens within a flow state.”
But he said no one knows the stack — which comes first, which comes last and why, or how they cascade through the brain.
So there’s the brain chemistry, but Doris mainly focuses on psychological and physical triggers that could take us to the flow state. There are 22 of them, he said.
“These are preconditions for flow that need to be achieved in order for you to get into a flow state,” he said.
For example, focusing on narrow, well-defined goals. Think: play these three bars of music; not: play this entire sonata.
And the next is what Doris called the challenge/skills balance.
“If the challenge level of a certain task slightly outstrips your current skill set, you’re more likely to be able to get into flow,” he said.
Start practicing a sonata that’s just slightly more complicated than the last one you mastered.
Doris wants to bring flow to the workplace. But how can you make a data-entry job flowy? He says focus on the challenge level.
“Let’s say it’s boring as hell, and a day feels like a week or an eternity,” he said. “Maybe with data entry, if the challenge level is always so low that the job is just so painfully boring, it’s going to be pretty damn hard for you to drive yourself into flow — … what you could do is you could artificially induce a deadline.”
Maybe tell yourself, “I’m gonna shred these 50 Excel rows in under five minutes, time me.” It’s one strategy, and it’s not like data entry will ever be as flowy as snowboarding.
Doris and his teams are chasing the flow state from the outside in, trying to create conditions at the workplace that make flow more possible.
Guy Cheron, the neuroscientist in Belgium, is doing the opposite, looking at how to change what’s in your head to get to flow.
It starts with a perfect movement
“The flow is not an attitude,” Cheron said. “It’s not like a yoga attitude or wellness — it’s linked to action.”
The flow in your brain is linked to a physical movement of your body. “The first condition of the emergence of flow is a perfect movement,” he said.
When you measure electricity in the brain with an EEG and electricity in the muscle with an Electromyography (EMG,) he said, you see perfect synchronicity before flow: the muscle does exactly what the brain tells it to. This could be a perfect keystroke on your computer, the perfect tennis serve, the perfect pull on a sewing needle — it gets you moving toward the flow state.
“But the reverse is not true,” said Cheron. “It’s not possible to go in flow with a bad movement. It’s impossible.”
Think back to the tightrope walker. After his cable snagged, his movements were still perfect — he was a pro, he didn’t fall — but his head space was all wrong. He was second-guessing, self-conscious.
He was rethinking his moves, had what Cheron called “some stupid feedback inside of your brain.”
So Cheron is trying to develop tools to help people track flow, and get into the right mental state for it.
One piece of tech he’s looking to is BCI, brain computer interface. The technology has been around for about a decade.
A BCI rig measures the electrical activity in a user’s brain and marries it to a computer display in real time. If Cheron’s measurements of flow get precise enough, he can one day have a computer guide a user to the flow mindset, showing warmer or colder depending on how they’re thinking.
“You must know what is your brain when you are in the flow. The computer can indicate to you where you are,” he said.
So you could be doing perfect movements — tennis serves, kick flips, whatever — but the computer keeps showing you cold, and colder. That’s a sign to change how you’re thinking — which, would probably take some practice too.
There’s a great deal of science chasing flow. But neuroscientist Heather Berlin said we can also flow without all that.
She found her flow in painting.
“When I was studying in college … I was pre-med, but then I was like a fine arts minor and would just like paint at night,” she said. “And, it was good for my science, being able to get into those flow states. I could think more creatively about the kind of data that I was looking at.”
She’s studied flow for years.
“So I quote the eminent philosopher, Marshall Mathers: ‘You have to lose yourself in the music, the moment … you better never let it go.’”
Mr. Mathers, aka Eminem, that is, and his hit song “Lose Yourself.” Berlin said you can learn a lot from the song. “I think he perfectly describes that I’m getting lost in that, in that state,” she said.
If you want to flow, chase that. Figure out what you can get lost in.
“Maybe for someone it’s knitting or, you know, going just for a walk in nature,” she said. “Whatever that thing is, make time in your day, allow time in your day to go there, and to allow your mind to be free.”