The Science of Flow: Unlocking Better Creativity and Happiness (Part 1)

The following essay started out as my own attempt to try and codify strategies to improve my creative output. Advertising & Marketing are industries that feed on new ideas, so any strategies to improve ideation are always important. 

It has ended up being a much larger two part deep dive into the theory of flow, one of the more interesting recent scientific theories on where creativity comes from.

Part 1 will outline some of the problems we are currently facing, and introduce a crash course into the theory and science behind flow. Part 2 will be a much more grounded and practical framework for introducing more flow into our lives, hopefully maximising creativity as well as happiness in the process.

The Theory of Flow

There is no doubt that humans have made extraordinary leaps in the time we have been on our planet. Right now, we live in an era defined by huge advances in medicine, quality of life, longevity, resource acquisition and abundance. We also have some ongoing and upcoming thorny problems that we still need to address.

The purpose of this essay is to explore two elements of this equation;

  1. The need to drive greater happiness
  2. The desire to spark deeper creativity.

Present Problems

Right now, we have some deep systemic cultural problems manifesting in our workforce. Shifting values from Generation X to Z and increased technological disruption have not meshed well - instead they are leading to greater levels of uncertainty and unhappiness.

A 2013 Gallup report ‘State of the Global Workplace’ reveals that the bulk of the workers worldwide (63% or 900 million people) are “not engaged” at work, with a further 24% stating they are “actively disengaged”. This means over 3/4 of workers worldwide are unhappy, unproductive, lack motivation, and are unlikely to invest in discretionary effort in organizational goals and outcomes. This has a massive impact on creativity and output.

It gets worse when you take into account Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital Trends report. Some of their findings include:

  • 86% of business and HR leaders believe they do not have an adequate leadership pipeline
  • 79% believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem
  • 77% do not feel they have the right HR skills to address the issue
  • 75% are struggling to attract and recruit the top people they need
  • Only 17% feel they have a compelling and engaging employment brand

This is creating a sense of operational paralysis. Traditional organizations are struggling to attract workers, and when they do, they can’t seem to create happy work environments to support them. Out of all of the skills valued most by business leaders, creativity continues to be highlighted as the number one attribute we need to foster in employees and leaders to meet new and emerging challenges.

Future Problems

The invention of steam power in the Industrial Revolution allowed humans to overcome the limitations of physical muscle power and generate massive amounts of useful energy at will. Now computers and other digital advances are doing the same for our mental power - a huge boost to humanity but one that is taking us into increasingly uncharted territory.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call this phase the Second Machine Age, as outlined in their book of the same name.

As technology gets more powerful, there is going to be less and less need for some kinds of workers. The reality is we could see a future where large groups of people get left behind by increasingly advanced computing and robotics - a variety of institutions have estimated that as much as 40% of the workforce stands to be replaced by machines in the next two decades.

The result of theses impacts is that we as individuals need to develop new ‘Twenty First Century Skills’ that will allow us to thrive in the rapidly changing world we live in. We need to be much more adaptable and flexible in our career aspirations and focus, being prepared to move on from areas that become outdated or automated.

So what are these new skills? These are unfortunately not taught in schools, but are sorely needed psychological and intellectual talents; grit, fortitude, courage, resilience, diligence, cooperation, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and high-speed "hot" decision making. A far cry from the three R’s which form our current education standards.

Existential Problems

As a more philosophical argument, we are facing an era increasingly defined by failed states, a descent towards global war and an underlying metaphysical malaise. A time where great ideas are few and far between.

To quote Umir Haque:

“Are we idearupt? As in: bankrupt of great ideas?

Go ahead. Name me an “ism” that still works.

I’ll wait.

Conservatism? #LOL. Liberalism? #lol. Capitalism, or what’s left of it? Sure, maybe for billionaires. “Libertarianism”? I invite you to Mogadishu, good sir. Socialism…syndicalism…anarchism…mercantilism…revanchism…shit!!

Wait. What about…Bronyism?

Perhaps you see my point.

We’re living through a kind of implosion. Not just of institutions—that much is obvious. But a collapse of institutions that was detonated by an implosion.

Of ideas.

Consider the twentieth century. The world created international law, international development, international trade, and international human rights. These were tremendous, astonishing human accomplishments. The kind that mankind might never have even dreamed of a few short centuries ago.

And now? What do we consider “great ideas”? Cruising to your less-than-minimum-wage temp gig at a robo-warehouse in your self-driving car share checking how many “friends” Spot made on the latest doggy dating app hoping you got another heart on yours?

Those aren’t great ideas. They’re clever businesses, and for that we should applaud them. But we must recognize. You can’t Tinder your way to a better world. You can’t even Tinder your way to a life worth living.

All the great “isms” are winking out. And so. The world is starting to burn. Nations are fracturing. Social contracts are being torn apart. In most of the world’s richest nations, not one but two generations will be lost. The global economy is stagnating.

And already from that witches cauldron is rising the smoke. Of violence, animosity, extremism, hatred. Which will eventually, if the fire is left untended, kindle into a wildfire of war.

All this is not inevitable. Yet. But it is predictable. For a single, simple reason.

We no longer have ideas powerful enough to organize the world. Yesterday’s “isms” are vanishing. And in their place is left a vacuum.”

So where do we now look to try and solve the twin problems of creativity and happiness? How can we leverage more happiness in our own lives, and maximize our creative output to try and refill the coffers?

The Root of Happiness

A thousand years ago Aristotle came to the unsurprising conclusion that what people want above all else is to be happy.

To put this another way, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noted that “while happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal - health, beauty, money or power - is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy."

Csikszentmihalyi is important here because in the 1960’s he conducted one of the largest studies on happiness ever conceived, interviewing thousands of people from all walks of life. If we want to understand how to make people happier, this is a good place to start.

From his research he identified five simple commonalities that are present when people experience happiness:

  1. They are intensely focused on an activity
  2. Of their own choosing
  3. That is neither under challenged (boredom) or over challenged (burnout)
  4. That has a clear objective
  5. And that grants immediate feedback

Csikszentmihalyi called this happiness state ‘Flow’. It is also often referred to as 'the Zone'.

Flow.

Flow Elements

Since his initial discovery, the five commonalities of flow have been further broken down into the following key elements:

  • Clear goals: expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  • Concentration: a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
  • A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: the merging of action and awareness.
  • Distorted sense of time: one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  • Direct and immediate feedback: successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
  • Balance between ability level and challenge: the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
  • A sense of personal control over the situation.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortlessness.
  • A lack of awareness of bodily needs.
  • Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.

With this information in hand, we can break flow down into a set of element groupings:

Conditions of Flow

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Challenge / skill ratio

Flow Feelings

  • Concentration
  • Loss of self-consciousness
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Sense of control
  • Lack of awareness of bodily needs
  • Absorption and narrowing of awareness

Last which is highly important:

  • High-speed problem solving
  • Deep insight and creativity
  • Near perfect decision making

Flow also has macro and micro states. Micro flow is when only a few of the elements are present, while Macro flow is the state when you are hit by a freight train by all the elements at once.

Take a moment to think about instances where you may have experienced flow, however fleeting. It could be playing video games (they are packed with flow triggers), playing an instrument (freeform jazz musicians operate extensively in flow), playing team sports, long distance running (runners high), yoga, meditation, surfing, or something simple like going on a road trip and driving a car for long periods.

Note how this contradicts a very important and commonly held view that happiness has to do with relaxation. In fact happiness actually has more to do with intensely focused activity, where concentration on the task causes everything else to fall away.

Flow. 

Flow and Creativity

Here’s the most important point. Flow is more than just happiness, it represents a state of peak performance defined by creative high-speed problem solving and action orientated decision making - the very skills we desperately need to survive the coming twenty-first-century changes.

From Ned Hallowell, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist:

"Flow naturally transforms a weakling into a muscleman, a sketcher into an artist, a dancer into a ballerina, a plodder into a sprinter, an ordinary person into something extraordinary. Everything you do, you do better in flow, from baking a chocolate cake to planning a vacation to solving a differential equation to writing a business plan to playing tennis to making love. Flow is the doorway to the 'more' most of us seek. Rather than telling ourselves to get used to it, that's all there is, instead learn how to enter into flow. There you will find, in manageable doses, all the 'more' you need."

Flow then is a truly optimal state of consciousness, a state of peak performance where we both feel our best and perform our best. So how do we get a better understanding of Flow so we can get more of it in our lives?

The Rise of Superman

On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner stepped out on a platform on a balloon suspended 24 miles above the earth. He was about to embark upon a "space dive", the goal of which was to be the first human being to break the sound barrier without protection from a craft.

Incredibly, this monumental feat wasn’t conceived by a government agency or military organisation in secret. Rather it was a joint venture between energy drink company Red Bull and action sports veteran Baumgartner. They were about to try and achieve what half a century of government backed space programs had not been able to.

No one really knew if the human body could take the punishment from going supersonic. There was real danger that at a certain RPM your blood would try and eject itself from the body, the most convenient exit point being through the eyeballs. Added to this was extreme claustrophobia from the constrictive suit, and the pressure of the astronomical heights.

Baumgartner had walked off the project a few weeks previously due to extreme psychological pressure - the fear was just too great. It is a testament to his resolve as both a human being and an athlete that he was able to work through these demons, and stand there ready to jump.

After leaping off, in less than a minute he was flying over 700 miles per hour, quickly moving into a death spin. Somehow he managed to pull himself under control, riding the rest of the fall past 800 miles/hour to Mach 1.24. He eventually landed safely on Earth, in the process also breaking the records for highest manned balloon flight, highest altitude jump, and highest number of concurrent viewers of a live feed of an event.

Clearly an action and adventure athlete making this kind of jump in lieu of traditional institutions was showing something strange was going on. Why were action and adventure athletes consistently pushing themselves into such uncharted territory? What did they know that the average person hadn’t figured out? And what could we learn from them?

These ideas formed the main proposition of Steven Kotlers excellent book “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance”, one of the most interesting and detailed deep dives into the science of flow.

As Kotler writes:

"Over the past three decades, an unlikely collection of men and women have pushed human performance further and faster that any other point in the 150,000 year history of our species. In this evolutionary eyeblink, they have completely redefined the limits of the possible. But here's the stranger part: this unprecedented flowering of human potential has taken place in plain sight, occasionally with millions of people watching - yet almost no one has noticed.

The reason for this is simple: virtually all of this massively accelerated performance has occurred within the world of action and adventure sports."

Let’s face it, in the early twenty-first century, our tried and tested sports are becoming increasingly soft. New rules and regulations are continually being introduced to make sports less deadly, remove danger, increase safety standards, and overall make things more predictable and mild. In other words they are stagnating.

There used to be a old saying that “the only two sports were Boxing and Formula 1 - everything else was a game”. Death was an ever present cloud hanging over both these endeavors that demanded they be elevated on a pedestal above all the rest.

With new rules to protect fighters, interest in Boxing has increasingly started to wane. Even Mixed Martial Arts, its spiritual predecessor has added a myriad of rules to ensure the once labeled “human cockfighting” has stringent safety measures.

Formula 1 has seen a huge amount of safety innovations developed to protect the drivers, which has meant that Ayrton Senna’s tragic death in 1994 has been the last casualty on the track. While removing driver death is definitely a hugely important achievement, a byproduct of this innovation is a dampening of some of the more visceral excitement in the sport.

The NFL has introduced new illegal-hit rules to protect "defenceless players". Basketball has introduced technical foul changes that make even aggressive gestures like punching the air off-limits. Rugby Union and Rugby League have ‘outlawed the biff’ to stop on-field fighting. And soccer players throw themselves to the ground in acts of Shakespearian theatrics when another player so much as blows on them.

On the flip side to this, action and adventure sports have become increasingly harebrained and dangerous. Impossible feats in the eyes of scientists and commentators are continually challenged, questioning our very notions of gravity, velocity and sanity.

From peak performance Psychologist Mike Gervais from Rise of Superman:

"There's a natural urge to compare athletes to athletes, but trying to compare a guy like Shane McConkey [a ski dare devil who features heavily] to a guy like Kobe Bryant misses the mark entirely. It's almost apples and oranges. McConkey's got more in common with fourteenth-century Spanish explorers than anyone playing on the hardwood. You want to compare these athletes to someone, well, you've got to start with Magellan.”

Want more proof? How about the following action and adventure athletes:

In 2005, Danny Way jumped the Great Wall of China on a skateboard from a ramp longer than a football field. In the warmups, he clipped the lip fracturing his ankle and tearing his ACL. He still jumped it the next day, pulling four G’s of pressure with no steering leg (for context, F1 drivers pull two G's when cornering, while Astronauts pull three at takeoff).

How about Tyler Bradt plunging 189 feet off the Palouse Falls in Washington State (a 56.7 metre drop). This completely shattered the perception of the required force needed to kill someone when hitting the water.

Or how about Travis Pastrana pulling a double backflip on a motorcycle. Forget science labelling one flip impossible, the limits in Motocross just keep getting broken.

(The Rise of Superman contains many more unbelievable and jaw dropping feats of achievements by these and other athletes. I highly recommend giving it a read if you're interested in an insiders look into this incredible world).

Kotlers argument is that the secret sauce behind these feats is flow. These athletes are operating in a newly coined state of “ultimate human performance” - while traditional athletes perform at a state of optimal performance, these guys add an ultimate layer where any mistake could kill you. The zone is needed to be creative in the moment and survive.

Hacking Flow

Flow is the most desirable state on Earth but it is one of the most elusive. While it has puzzled scientists for a very long time, two things have begun to widen our understanding.

Firstly, we now have an increasing large sample group of action and adventure athletes who we can study to try and get a deeper understanding of how they have hacked flow to achieve what they achieve (they can verbalize their experiences).

Second, technology has given us better tools to understand how flow operates in the body and brain so we can better explore it. From new fMRI technologies, to quantified sensors like Nike Fuelband and Jawbone UP, understanding flow has improved by leaps and bounds.

Decoding Flow

Doing a deep dive of flow involves what Kotler terms playing around with our primal biology - addictive neurochemistry, potent psychology and hard wired evolutionary behaviours. In order to simplify our understanding, Kotler breaks down flow into three distinct processes in the body -  neuroelectricity, neuroanatomy, and neurochemistry.

Neuroelectricity

Our understanding of neuroelectricity in the brain largely comes from our ability to measure brain waves with EEG and fMRI technologies. This has allowed us to uncover the five different brain wave types and their effects.

These brain waves are:

1. Delta (1 Hz to 3.9 Hz)

The slowest wave, this is found usually in a state of deep, dreamless sleep.

2. Theta (4 Hz and 7.9 Hz)

This correlates with REM sleep, meditation, insight, and the processing of novel incoming stimuli.

3. Alpha (8 Hz and 13.9 Hz).

This correlates to the brains basic resting state, so when you are relaxed, calm, and lucid, but not really thinking.

4. Beta (14 Hz and 30 Hz).

On the low end, this signifies learning and concentration, but at the high end it covers fear and stress (our fight or flight response).

5. Gamma (Above 30 Hz)

The most elusive, this only shows up during "binding", when different parts of the brain are combining desperate thoughts into new ideas (our highly sought after creative moments).

The Explicit and Implicit Systems

The brain also has two distinct systems in place, the explicit and implicit.

The explicit system is rule-based, can be expressed verbally, and is tied to conscious awareness. When the prefrontal cortex of the brain is fired up, the explicit system is usually turned on.

The implicit system is our highly intuitive brain, which is more gut based. It relies on skill and experience, it cannot be accessed consciously, and cannot be described verbally.

What then is the advantage of thinking implicitly? In this state, the brain can operate much faster and much more efficiently (the brain chews up a huge amount of energy in the body, so we try and conserve this as much as possible as a survival mechanism). There are a number of situations where it is better to react instead of stopping to think about how you feel, otherwise we would have been wiped out a long time ago.

When the explicit system handles a problem, the neurons involved in the brain are very close to one another. This proximity leads to linear connections, logical deduction, and standardized reasoning. We think like Spock in Star Trek.

When the implicit system handles a problem, the neurons involved are connecting to much wider or far-flung areas of the brain. So we describe this as thinking "laterally" or "outside the box". Novel stimuli are combining with obscure memories or random thoughts to result in something utterly new - recombinations of old ideas and stimuli forming brand new unique creative outputs.

Traditionally these systems have been described as "conscious" or "unconscious", or our "left brain" versus our "right brain". These were fairly simplified theories that have since been revised - their relationship is a lot more murky.

The Six Stage Decision Making Process

When we make decisions, our brains go through a six-stage cycle to allow us to process and react. This is as follows:

  1. Baseline state
  2. Novel Stimuli (starting the process)
  3. Problem-Solving Analysis
  4. Pre-Action Readiness
  5. Action
  6. Post-action evaluation (and back to Baseline)

Each stage requires different parts of the brain and produces different brain waves. What distinguishes ‘peak performers’ from regular people is the ability to transition between the different states through complete, fluid brain control. They can suspend themselves in a specific state (leveraging a specific brain wave).

Brain Waves and the Implicit and Explicit Systems

Explicit activities are usually defined by the beta wave. Implicit activities however show up instead in a low alpha / high theta wave. Even more importantly, creativity has a brain signature, which is Alpha waves pulsing out of the right hemisphere of the brain or the implicit system.

At the instant of a breakout moment of intuition, we experience a burst of Gamma waves within Alpha. This shows random ideas, thoughts and memories and incoming novel stimuli are all binding together to create a new network. This gives birth to creative ideas.

Gamma can only occur inside of Thetas oscillations. And Theta needs to move out of Alpha. The secret here is relaxation - moving away from fight or flight Beta.

Going back to our decision making process, before we engage Action we try and assess the situation, and make predictions on the future, which causes anxiety and fear (linked to Beta waves). When we suddenly relax and calm down and really focus on the task at hand, we move to Alpha, leverage Theta, and oscillate Gamma - a creative idea is born.

This then is one of the secrets that action and adventure athletes have learned in the process of hacking flow - they have developed the ability to transition smoothly into the zone by creating a low alpha / high theta wave and suspending themselves there, shutting out the conscious mind and harnessing the implicit system. This doesn’t just increase their decision making abilities, it dramatically increases their creative decision making abilities, sorely needed when false steps could lead to death.

Neurochemistry

Next, we need to look at neurochemistry. This refers to the “information molecules” that we release in the body and create effects in the brain, which are usually excitatory (turn something on) or inhibitory (suppress something else).

Before we get into the exact chemicals that feature in flow, we need to understand how we learn through pattern recognition.

Pattern Recognition

In the past, scientists theorized that the brain primarily worked through interpretation; our senses would gather data and then decide from that what’s actually happening in the world. Instead, new research has found that we operate on prediction; our senses gather data and this information is used to make predictions about what we think is going to happen before it happens.

The main job of the neocortex in the brain therefore is to predict the future.

This was a primal response. Prediction was vastly important to our survival, so our bodies learned to reward this behavior. When we make a prediction and our brain identifies a correct pattern, we release a tiny squirt of dopamine. This feels really good, and it makes us learn the pattern.

Dopamine creates a snowball effect. It amps up attention and reduces noise in our neural networks, the end result being that we notice more patterns, that helps us notice even more patterns, and so on.

Also, as these neurons fire together as a pattern, they wire together. The more they are activated like this, the faster information can travel along the connection. This forms the basis of learning.

Next is “chunking”. When we recognize a pattern, it doesn’t get stored as a linear series of steps, but rather as a whole called a “chunk”. These build upon each other like lego, until seeing the edge of a tiny pattern allows us to make very complicated predictions about the future.

Flow Neurochemicals

Flow is a complex response to external events, and leverages a number of neurochemicals as part of the process. We will touch on each briefly.

1. Dopamine

The chemical outlined in pattern recognition above, this is the cocaine of the body. Humans are hard-wired for exploration and to push the envelope. Dopamine is released when we do something novel or take a risk - it rewards exploratory behavior. In flow it increases attention, information flow, pattern recognition, and serves as a skill booster by firing heart rate, blood pressure and our muscles.

2. Norepinephrine

The speed of the body. It revs up heart rate, muscle tension, respiration, and glucose release for increased energy, and in the brain it increases arousal, attention, neural efficiency and emotional control. In flow it keeps us locked on target, holding distraction at bay.

3. Endorphins

The heroin of the body. These are natural opiates that relieve pain and produce pleasure, and both are leveraged in flow.

4. Anandamide

The marijuana of the body. It is generally released in exercise-induced flow states, and creates feelings of bliss. In flow it elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels and bronchial tubes to aid respiration, and amplifies our lateral thinking. It also inhibits our ability to feel fear.

5. Seratonin

More recent studies are showing on the tail end of flow is the release of serotonin, which is the Prozac of the body (a lot more research is required on this theory). Once flow has been completed, it creates the afterglow effect to signal the state is over.

The Flow Inhibitors

Action and adventure athletes often get labelled as “adrenalin junkies”. This is actually a complete misnomer - adrenaline (and its cousins cortisol and norepinephrine) are an extreme stress response in the body linked to our fight or flight response that shuts the brain down to reactive survival autopilot, and quite frankly feels terrible.

In ‘No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality’ by Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, the authors touch on the fact that Neuroscience has gone a long way to expand on our previous assumptions about Fight of Flight. In fact this term is now viewed as an oversimplification; we have expanded this definition to be ‘Freezing, Fleeing, Fainting and Fighting’. These are all primitive survival responses.

Freezing is a state of ‘attentive mobility’ and is designed by the body to escape detection from a predator. In times where action is needed, this can cause serious problems by making the body ‘petrified’ and the mind ‘stupefied’. The brain might be working, but it can’t make the body respond to its commands.

Fleeing often follows a freezing state, and was a primal response to being spotted by a predator. An uncontrollable urge to run away seizes the body, but without rational instruction from the prefrontal cortex, this often involves blind running while screaming in extreme cases. This explains people getting stampeded to death in nightclub or theatre fires.

Fighting affects a minority of people in high stress situations. As the brain shuts down due to stress they lose their fight impulse control and become violent. Not a particularly great thing to have to deal with if you are involved with a falling plane or sinking ship.

Lastly, some individuals experience ‘tonic immobility’ or actual Fainting. This state which expresses itself somewhere between freezing and playing dead is a sort of last ditch effort by the body when all else has failed. You are conscious, but unresponsive and free from fear and pain and have no conscious control of the body.

In all of these states, critical thinking skills seize up, our senses start supplying faulty information and our perceptions of reality can shift dramatically. As you can imagine, when your life is on the line when you are sailing over the Great Wall of China on a skateboard, this isn’t an optimal situation to be in.

Flow is the opposite (instead of shutting down our brain, our options are wide open creatively), however the reality is that the states are linked. Risk heightens our focus, and flow follows that focus, so you need to move through one to get to the other.

Action and adventure athletes experience extreme fear and the adrenaline responses to the crazy stunts they are undertaking. But then pattern recognition kicks in, they relax, and then the zone is triggered. The relaxation response throws them into the full macro flow experience.

This has a heap of desirability for the regular person seeking flow. It means that in a high stress situation (think work deadlines or in our own physical activity) we can create “situational awareness” which allows us to absorb information accurately, assess it calmly, and respond appropriately. We can keep cool when all hell breaks loose - no regrets, no false moves, no hesitation, just the perfect expression of our optimal selves.

Neuroanatomy

Neuroanatomy refers to our nervous system within the brain and spinal cord. In flow this gives rise to some of the more interesting experiences that feature in the zone - the voice, time dilation and loss of spatial awareness.

As we have established, the brain has two systems (explicit and implicit), and the implicit system is responsible for our gut reactions and our unconsciousness. While we think that this cannot be expressed verbally, athletes in flow all report of an interesting phenomenon known as “the Voice”.

Our intuition is always broadcasting during brain function, however due to the extreme amount of brain chatter going on, we can’t begin to hear it. In flow, we actually vastly amplify this voice, broadcasting the unconscious minds perception into our consciousness. This may appear as images, feelings, or in extreme cases a big booming voice telling us what to do.

Where this is important is in our prefrontal cortex, or the front part of the brain. This is the place we collect data, problem solve, plan ahead, assess risk, evaluate rewards, suppress urges, learn from experience, make moral decisions, and define our normal sense of self.

In broad terms, the prefrontal cortex is where thinking happens. We take simple ideas and add layers of complexity to them.

Hypofrontality

For years scientific theory had the idea that during flow the prefrontal cortex was becoming hyperactive and heightened during the state. New research has flipped this on its head - instead of activating, we are actually creating transient hypofrontality, or a deactivation of areas in the quest to eliminate complexity.

So what are some of the areas that deactivate?

First is the Superior Frontal Glutus. This part of the brain helps produce our sense of self, or our introspective feeling of self-awareness. This generally starts to deactivate when we lose ourselves in a task. The main benefit is being reactive - if we see a snake, we don’t want to stand around thinking about how you feel about the situation, you want to get moving fast. It also removes a lot of our perceptions of our limits.

Second is the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex. This is an area of the brain known for self-monitoring and impulse control, so we become more impulsive and push ourselves harder.

Third is Self-Monitoring. This is the voice of doubt and disparagement or our inner critic. As second guessing could cause us to falter (and potentially die) we deactivate this so we can operate without hesitation.

Lastly is Impulse Control. This is our ability to resist temptation, which again is a strong survival mechanism. As flow is an action state, we cannot hesitate, so we shut this down.

While we deactivate a lot of the brain, we do also activate some areas. This is primarily the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. This area governs our creative self-expression, which explains how people in flow can have individual styles.

Time Dilation

This is probably the most unusual characteristic of flow - people report feeling that time either vastly speeds up (hours feel like minutes) or vastly slows down (seconds feel like hours).

Time or our temporal awareness is not actually located in any single, specific part of the brain. Instead it is calculated by a number of different areas of the brain working together. Because flow deactivates large parts of the neocortex, we begin to lose the ability to compute time. Again, this is an efficiency exchange - we switch focus on temporal awareness in favor of taking in more data per second.

Spatial Awareness

Our other highly unusual element of flow is its effects of our perception of space (or rather how this perception is erased).

Spatiality happens further back from our prefrontal cortex in the superior parietal lobe, an area that handles orientation and navigation (so where we perceive our body to be - the finite “us” versus infinite “not us”).

The superior parietal lobe is a huge energy suck, so it shuts down to allow us to be hyperfrontal. The result is a lack of ability to perceive where the universe ends and begins, and a feeling of oneness with everything.

The catch here is focus - what you are concentrating on largely becomes what you feel like you are one with. Surfers talk about being one with a wave. F1 drivers talk about feeling the track through their tires. Buddhist monks in meditation are at one with the universe. Attention matters.

Deactivating the Brain

So why would this be any sort of advantage to us? This all comes back to fear. Our fears are both grounded in our self, and in time and space. When we essentially erase ourselves from the equation in our brains, we are liberated from doubt and insecurity, which means we can act without thinking.

Editing out the noise through reduction also allows “the voice” to be turned up louder because there isn't as much background noise. We can hear our intuition, and act upon it for better creative decision making.

Summary

Through examining the theory and science behind flow, we have created a much better understanding of the root of happiness and creativity, and how this operates in the body and brain. 

Flow is hugely desirable as it places us in an optimal state of being, where we can tap into our most intuitive and creative thinking and make exceptional decisions.

Part 2 will examine a more grounded explanation on how to use this information to try and generate more flow in our lives, hopefully improving creative output and happiness in the process. 


This post continues my series on Mental Models. Check out a full evolving list below.