If you’ve ever lost yourself in an activity — playing video games, running, or making art — you’ve noticed that you fully immerse yourself in the present moment and rise to the challenge of the experience without getting bored, frustrated, or tired. Thoughts about the past, the future, and even the self melt away. Time seems to fly by. you are in the zone
This is the flow state first described by the late Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. Since then, researchers have followed the concept, trying to figure out how and why we get into the state of flow and how we can get more of this inherently rewarding experience in our daily lives, both at work and at play.
Flow is not only a pleasant state, but is also perceived as personally significant. “When the self loses itself in a transcendent goal – be it writing great poetry, making beautiful furniture, understanding the movements of galaxies, or helping children be happier – the self becomes largely invulnerable to the fears and setbacks of the ordinary Dasein,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 1995 interview. Flow is also associated with improved performance in certain situations.
Not only is flow rewarding in the moment, but “has also been linked to a range of longer-term outcomes for well-being — everything from buffering against burnout at work to buffering against depression and increasing resilience,” Richard Huskey, Assistant professor in the Cognitive Science Program at the University of California Davis, The Daily Beast said.
To date, most flow research has been psychological, drawing on participants’ own accounts of how they think and feel. While these studies are important, scientists have many questions that purely psychological studies may not be able to answer. The most important of these is: What actually happens in the brain when we are in flow?
But to answer questions about the neurobiology of the flow, scientists have had to bring the flow from the soccer field or artist’s studio to the laboratory, which is no easy task. They had to find a task that reliably induces a state of flow that can be performed by average people with no special skills. Because many studies of brain activity are done in an fMRI machine (which measures blood flow to different parts of the brain), the task had to be something people could do while lying down and with their heads completely still.
The task also had to have an adjustable level of difficulty. If a task is too easy, you probably won’t get into a flow state, Dimitri van der Linden, professor of behavioral sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, told The Daily Beast. Instead, you will get bored or your mind will wander to other things. But when the task is too hard, you get stressed or frustrated. “At the mid-level, there tends to be flow there,” he said.
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Many researchers use video games or gamified versions of tasks regularly used in cognitive neuroscience. This is perhaps not surprising since Csikszentmihalyi identified many similarities between game and flow. “Play is action that creates action: a unified experience that flows from one moment to the next, in contrast to our otherwise disjointed ‘everyday’ experiences,” he wrote in a paper published in 1971.
So Huskey’s lab created a game called Asteroid Impact to study currents; Players move a tiny spaceship to collect crystals while trying to avoid being hit by asteroids. Other studies have used first person shooters or Tetris. Games don’t have to be overly complicated to induce flow.
While most studies of this type use games, one group in Germany uses mental arithmetic tasks adapted to the participants’ abilities. While this may not sound very exciting, participants reported high levels of concentration and a relative absence of thoughts about personal matters, as well as at least moderate enjoyment of the task, indicating characteristics of flow.
Using these techniques, researchers have begun to generate some ideas about the neurobiology underlying the properties of the flow state.
Some researchers have hypothesized that it is a state of high connectivity between the brain’s reward system and cognitive control system that helps us focus on a specific task to pursue a goal. “Basically, the synchronization theory of flow argues that when people experience flow, systems in their brain that are associated with goal-directed behavior—and evoke the control associated with it—cooperate with and should be functionally informed by systems in their brain, associated with reward processing,” said Huskey.
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There is even scientific evidence for this. Flow is associated with higher activity in the reward areas of the brain. This is further supported by studies showing that dopamine, a chemical in your brain that plays a large role in pleasure, is linked to a tendency to flow. Some areas of the cognitive control network are also more active during flow.
While there is some evidence of connectivity between these two networks during flow, the nature of that connectivity appears to be dynamic and is not yet fully understood, Huskey said.
What our brain does in a state of flow is certainly important, but what it is Not doing is also the key. During flow, we’re absorbed in a single task and don’t think about ourselves – whether we look stupid, whether we’re working fast enough, whether a colleague is mad at us, or just having a bad day.
Scientists believe this non-task 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,” said van der Linden.
And indeed, components of the DMN appear to be less active in the flow state. This helps scientists understand the mechanisms that may underlie the freedom from self-directed thought we experience during flow.
While learning more about the brain processes involved in flow might help us, we can design everyday or work-related tasks to be more flow-inducing. Another possibility is to manipulate not the task but the brain itself.
Research groups in Germany and Australia have used a type of painless electrical stimulation (delivered from outside the brain) to modulate activity in specific brain areas to enhance people’s experience of flow in video games and mental arithmetic. But don’t buy a brain stimulation device just yet. First, both studies were fairly 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 were already low flow at the start of the study.
In addition to fully elucidating the effects of brain stimulation on flow, there are many other unanswered questions. For example, Van der Linden notes that many of the brain activity patterns observed in flow are also related to attention. “So is flow really a unique state? Or is it just the extreme point of very strong, focused attention?”
For his part, Huskey is interested in establishing a causal link between flow and mental health benefits. Virtually all studies of flow and well-being are correlative: they show an association between the two, but do not show whether states of flow actually lead to greater well-being, or whether those with greater well-being can enter flow states more easily, or if both are through one third factor are caused. By experimentally inducing flow in the lab, Huskey hopes to see if flow states actually promote mental well-being and to uncover the neurobiological processes that link flow to positive outcomes.
Ultimately, he believes, “a better understanding of the neurobiological basis of flow should give us additional insight into when and why flow occurs, how we can design flow in everyday tasks, and what mechanisms might underlie potential positive psychological benefits.”
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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