Mental State of Flow

Published on to joshleeb's blog

For the past month, I’ve started thinking about using technology and what we know about the human brain to influence our mental states. As part of that I’ve been working on understanding more about the state of flow, sometimes called ecstatis, “runner’s high” or being “in the zone.”

What Is Flow

Flow is a state of mind that allows you to operate at peak performance at whatever task you are doing. It increases your creativity, intelligence, decision making and learning abilities, just to name a few.

When you are in this state you become fully immersed in what you are doing. Everything else fades into the background and becomes irrelevant, including your sense of self. You don’t feel hungry or thirsty, there’s no pain, discomfort, stress, or worry. You are just hyper-focused on the task at hand.

It was first researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihályi who has managed to identify the six parts of experiencing being in the zone.

Intense Focus on the Present Moment

In a flow state your brain is able to process a lot more information, a lot deeper. As a result your focus on the present moment and your task is increased in what is sometimes referred to as the deep now.

Merging of Action and Awareness

People in a state of flow have sometimes reported feeling as though they are watching themselves, rather than actually performing the actions. Others have described it as knowing how well the task is going, what is happening in the present, and what needs to be done in the future in future at the same time. You essentially become more aware of the actions that make up the task, and the task as a larger goal at the same time.

Loss of Reflective Self-Consciousness

Reflective self-consciousness is what I referred to before as a sense of self and when you are deep in a flow state it is completely gone. Certain neurochemicals get released in your brain that mask pain and discomfort, such as Endorphins, and your Cortisol levels are reduced a lot which means you don’t feel stressed or anxious.

Increased Sense of Control

Being in flow allows you to operate at a peak level of performance, but not without requiring feedback. By being able to process more information in a more focused way, including the feedback you are receiving on your task, you are able to understand your task much better. Then because you are also more aware of everything that’s going on, as mentioned earlier, you achieve an increased sense of control.

Distortion of Time

In a state of flow the temporal regions of your brain aren’t as active as they are in day-to-day life. This results in feelings that time is distorting. Often this will feel like time speeds up but sometimes it will feel much slower, depending on what you’re doing.

Intense Feelings of Reward

The state of flow comes with intense feelings of reward which makes it “the most addictive state”. This is caused by the flood of neurochemicals that are released when you are in a flow state:

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