By Dayna Mason
Each of us has a special talent—a “superpower”—something that we enjoy, that seems effortless and when we are fully immersed in it, we can lose all sense of time. Psychologists call this state of peak performance “flow,” and research suggests that the time spent in this state enhances our memory, accelerates our learning, and boosts our immune system.
What is flow?
Sometimes referred to as “runner’s high” or being “in the zone,” “flow” is the state where our mind is no longer wandering but is completely involved in an activity for its own sake. Our body feels good and the world seems cut off from us. Time flies. We are less aware of ourselves and we are using our skills to their maximum capability. It can feel as if something has taken over and we are simply letting it happen.
What happens to us in flow?
Fueled by the popular myth that we typically use only 10% of our brains, is the common belief that flow occurs when we’re using all of our brain. The truth is, we use most of our brain most of the time. In a state of flow there is less activity in the brain and our pre-frontal cortex (where complex decisions are made) shuts down. The pre-frontal cortex is also where our sense of self and time are produced, so in flow our inner critic shuts up and we have no sense of time. American University neuroscientist Arne Dietrich says that during flow, “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
During flow, the only time this ever occurs, five of the most potent addictive neurochemicals that the brain can produce dump all at once.
Dopamine – increases attention and pattern recognition.
Norepinephrine – boosts energy, increases arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, and produces a high.
Endorphins – relieves pain and induces pleasure.
Anandamide – elevates mood, relieves pain, aids in respiration and amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link disparate ideas together.
Serotonin – increases confidence and sense of calm.
These performance-enhancing, feel-good chemicals also boost our immune system, calm the nervous system, and massively enhance memory and learning while in the flow state.
According to research at the Flow Genome Project, flow doesn’t work like an on-off switch but in a 4-phase cycle: 1. Struggle; 2. Release; 3. Flow; 4. Recovery.
The first phase, the struggle phase, is unpleasant as we load and overload the brain with information. The next phase is release where we let go of thinking about the problem, trading conscious processing for the more efficient subconscious processing, allowing the subconscious to work on the problem by going for a walk or doing some gardening. Watching TV during this phase doesn’t work because it changes our brainwaves in a way that blocks flow. This phase also flushes our body of all its stress hormones and replaces them with feel-good chemicals. The next phase is flow. In this phase, inspiration takes over and we achieve physical, emotional or mental results almost effortlessly. The last phase is recovery, where learning and memory are amplified dramatically. We may experience a feeling of let-down as the feel-good chemicals dissipate, but as long as we don’t wallow in that feeling, we will maximize the benefits of having been in the flow.
Benefits of flow
Research at the Flow Genome Project has found that we experience a 500%-700% boost in creativity in a state of flow and that we are 500% more productive.
The founder of the Flow Research Collective, Steven Kotler, experienced extraordinary healing from Lyme disease as a result of flow. At his worst point, when he was suicidal due to his debilitating illness, a friend insisted on taking him surfing. He thought this was ridiculous because he could barely walk. But he finally gave in and once he was on the surfboard headed for a wave, something else took over. He was in the flow. Over the next six months, when surfing was the only thing he was doing differently, he went from 10% functionality to 80%. He then committed his life to the study of high-performance states like flow.
Kotler learned that “All the neurochemicals released in flow amplify the immune system” and “reset the nervous system back to zero” creating space for rapid healing.
A study at Advanced Brain Monitoring found that snipers learned twice as fast in a state of flow, cutting the time in half that it took to achieve expert level.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, he claims that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Flow cuts this time in half and we become smarter faster.
How to trigger a state of flow
Flow occurs in the sweet spot between skill and challenge. We trigger flow when we engage in an activity that we are already good at, that we have some mastery of, while simultaneously stretching that skill just beyond boredom—enough to be difficult but not enough to cause frustration.
To set the stage for flow, we must minimize distractions and take our time. If we feel rushed, this will block flow. Having a clear goal helps and getting immediate feedback is an essential part of the process. For example, when I’m writing and in the flow, I occasionally stop and read back what I’ve written to see if it matches the performance level I’m feeling. An athlete might get feedback from a swing on the golf course by observing where the ball lands and make adjustments accordingly.
Flow is not strictly a solitary experience; it’s contagious and can be experienced with others. For example, when we witness flow happening at a sporting event or a concert, it can trigger some of the beneficial chemicals in ourselves.
Use your superpower to get into flow
Our superpower is that thing we are super good at, that thing where we excel without much effort, which seems amazing to others. People may even seek us out for this particular skill. Because this skill feels natural to us, we may not recognize it as anything exceptional.
The confidence we feel in our superpower motivates us and makes us want to do more. We want to take risks to stretch our abilities, even if this means hard work or making a sacrifice.
If we use our superpower to set a goal, clear any distractions, and take our time to stretch our mastery just slightly beyond our current capability, we prime ourselves for flow. And, the more time we spend in flow, the quicker we learn, the faster we heal, and the happier we feel.
What the Science of Flow can teach us about Limitless Performance (Steven Kotler)
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