If you’ve ever become lost in an activity–playing video games, running, or making art–you’ve noticed that you become completely immersed in the present moment, rising to the challenge of the experience without becoming bored, frustrated, or tired. You lose all thoughts about the future and self. It seems like time is flying by. The zone is where you are.
This is the flow state, first described by late Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. Researchers have been chasing the concept ever since, trying to figure out how and why we enter the flow state and how we can get more of this inherently rewarding experience in our everyday lives, in both work and play.
Flow can be a very enjoyable experience. It is also considered to have a personal meaning. “When the self loses itself in a transcendent purpose–whether to write great poetry, craft beautiful furniture, understand the motions of galaxies, or help children be happier–the self becomes largely invulnerable to the fears and setbacks of ordinary existence,” said Csikszentmihalyi in a 1995 interview. Flow is also associated with an improved performance in certain situations.
“Flow has also been associated with a number of longer-term wellbeing outcomes–everything from buffering against burnout at work to buffering against depression to increasing resilience.”
— Richard Huskey, University of California, Davis
In addition to being rewarding in the moment, “flow has also been associated with a number of longer-term wellbeing outcomes–everything from buffering against burnout at work to buffering against depression to increasing resilience,” Richard Huskey, an assistant professor in the Cognitive Science Program at the University of California Davis, told The Daily Beast.
To date, the majority of research into flow is psychological. Participants’ reports on how they feel and think have been used to determine their feelings. These studies are very important but scientists still have many questions to address that only psychological research can answer. Chief among these is: What’s actually happening in the brain when we’re in a state of flow?
To answer these questions, researchers had to transfer flow from the artists’ studio or soccer field into the laboratory. This is not an easy task. The scientists had to find a way to reliably induce a flow state, which could be done by anyone without special expertise. Furthermore, since many studies of brain activity are performed in an fMRI machine (which measures blood flow to different parts of the brain), the task needed to be something that people could do while lying down and keeping their heads completely still.
The task also needed to have adjustable difficulty. The Daily Beast was told by Dimitri van der Linden (a professor of behavioral science at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands), that if a task is too difficult, it’s likely you won’t be able to get in a flow. You’ll either be bored or have your mind wander to other topics. But if the task is too hard, you’ll get stressed or frustrated. He said, “At an intermediate level that’s where flow tends not to occur.”
Many researchers use video games or gamified versions for tasks used regularly in cognitive neuroscience. It is not surprising, given the many similarities that Csikszentmihalyi found between flow and play. “Play is action generating action: a unified experience flowing from one moment to the next in contradistinction to our otherwise disjoint ‘everyday’ experiences,” he wrote in a paper published in 1971.
So Huskey’s lab created a game called “Asteroid Impact” to study flow; players move a tiny spaceship to collect crystals while trying not to get hit by asteroids. Other studies have used first-person shooters or Tetris. The games don’t have to be overly complicated to induce flow.
While most studies of this type use games, a group in Germany uses mental math tasks that are adjusted to the abilities of the participant. Although this may not seem exciting, participants reported a high level of concentration and an absence of personal worries. They also enjoyed the task at least somewhat, which is indicative of flow.
Using these techniques, researchers have begun to develop some ideas about the neurobiology underlying the characteristics of the flow state.
Some researchers have hypothesized that it’s a state of high connectivity between the brain’s reward system and the cognitive control system, which helps us maintain focus on a specific task in pursuit of a goal. “Basically, the synchronization theory of flow makes the argument that when people are experiencing flow, systems in their brain that are associated with goal-directed behavior–and eliciting the control associated with that–should be working together with and functionally informed by systems in the brain associated with reward processing,” Huskey said.
There is even scientific evidence for this. Flow is associated with higher activity in the brain’s reward areas. This is further supported by studies showing that dopamine, a chemical in your brain that plays a large role in pleasure, is associated with a propensity for the state of flow. Flow can also make certain areas of the cognitive control system more active.
While there is some evidence of connectivity between these two networks during flow, the nature of this connectivity appears to be dynamic and is not yet fully understood, said Huskey.
What our brains are doing in a flow state is certainly important, but what they’re not doing is also key. When we are in flow we can be completely focused on a task at hand and not think about our own thoughts.
Scientists think that this non-task-focused idle chatter is mediated by interacting regions of the brain called the default mode network (DMN). “The default mode network plays a role in self-referential thinking–thinking about yourself, thinking about what might happen in the future, or what happened in the past,” van der Linden said.
And indeed, components of the DMN do seem to be less active during the flow state. Scientists can now better understand how flow is possible. While it is possible to design tasks that are more flow-inducing for work or everyday life, another option would be manipulating the brain, not just the task.
“Having a better understanding of the neurobiological basis of flow should give us some additional insight into when and why flow occurs, how we might, in everyday tasks, design for flow, and what are the mechanisms that might underlie these potential positive psychological benefits.”
— Richard Huskey, University of California, Davis
Research groups in both Germany and Australia have used a type of painless electrical stimulation (administered from outside the brain) to modulate activity in specific brain areas and increase people’s experience of flow during video games and mental math tasks. But don’t go buy a brain stimulation device quite yet. First, both studies were quite small, with only about twenty or thirty participants. Also, it only seemed to work for some people: in the math study, for example, stimulation only increased the flow experience for those who already had low levels of flow at baseline.
There are still many unanswered questions. Van der Linden notes, for instance, that brain activity patterns seen in flow can also be related to attention. “So, is flow really a unique state? Or is it just the extreme point of having very strong, focused attention?”
For his part, Huskey is interested in establishing a causal link between flow and mental health benefits. The correlation between flow and well being is common in all studies. They show that there’s a relationship, but they don’t prove if flow state can lead to greater well-being, if flow states are more accessible, or whether both may be caused by another factor. By experimentally inducing flow in the lab, Huskey wants to see if flow states do in fact promote mental well-being and figure out the neurobiological processes that link flow to positive outcomes.
Ultimately, he believes, “having a better understanding of the neurobiological basis of flow should give us some additional insight into when and why flow occurs, how we might, in everyday tasks, design for flow, and what are the mechanisms that might underlie these potential positive psychological benefits.”
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