For the past month I’ve been looking into a possible path to take to accomplish my goal of consequence:
“To use technology to increase humanity’s collective altruism and cognition over the next ten years.”
Specifically I’ve been thinking about using technology and what we know about the human brain to influence our mental states. To this this thought back in with my goal, 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:
Where I Feel Flow
So far, I’ve found four places where I’m able to consistently and easily fall into “the zone” with minimal effort.
Exercising is the first task I noticed I could get into the zone. It is a huge part of why I love to exercise and stay active.
When I was still in high school I remember being asked why I like athletics so much. The person asking me didn’t understand why running in a straight line for just over 10 seconds could be enjoyable. My response was something like this:
“When I’m sprinting I don’t think about anything else. I’m not worried about my homework, or grades, or thinking about what I’m going to be having for dinner later. You don’t hear anything and all you see and focus on is running.”
In hindsight it was clear I found peace when I was playing sport. It was a break from everyday life, just for a little bit.
Programming was the next place I was able to find flow. After a session of coding I notice that the distortion of time effect was stronger than any other flow that I’ve experienced.
Often I will programming for many hours on end while barely leaving my desk. And when I return from a short break I very quickly forget that I ever left the keyboard.
Combining this with the rush you get from problem solving makes software engineering, in my opinion, a very addictive occupation.
As I got a little older and started thinking more about business projects, I noticed that I experienced shorter but more intense sessions of flow.
Thinking about it some more I think this has something to do with the problem solving aspect, but it is something I need to explore more.
Finally, there’s writing. In fact while I’m writing this I am jumping in and out of flow. I haven’t yet managed to keep it consistent when I’m writing but I’m sure that will come with more practice and experience.
It’s amazing what flow can do, and even more amazing is how it feels.
Steven Kotler refers to it as “the most addictive state of earth,” and the “source code for intrinsic motivation,” two statements I tend to agree with.