That feeling when you attempt something difficult and absolutely smash it out of the park is something most of us will have experienced at some point in our lives. When we’re so "in the zone" that we make complex tasks look easy, our brains enter a unique state which researchers call "flow", and a new study has revealed how the brain reorganizes itself in order to achieve this level of effortless competence.
“Flow is a state of peak enjoyment that occurs when you are doing something that is difficult and you are highly skilled at,” explained study author Richard Huskey in a statement. Presenting their work in the Journal of Communication, Huskey and his colleagues describe how flow is characterized by highly focussed attention and control, adding that such experiences are “highly rewarding and are associated with well-being."
To investigate how the brain enters this state, the researchers asked 142 people to play a video game called Asteroid Impact. When the difficulty level was too low, participants reported a state of boredom, while too high a level resulted in frustration. Intermediate difficulty, meanwhile, allowed players to become fully engaged in the game and was more likely to elicit self-reported flow experiences.
This initial finding led the authors to conclude that flow arises when a person is so immersed in an activity that they barely notice any distractions, yet are also able to complete that task with enough ease to avoid becoming frustrated.
In order to test this theory, the authors attempted to distract people from the game by asking them to respond to a red circle that appeared in the corner of the screen. As predicted, those who claimed to be experiencing "flow" tended to be slower at reacting to this interference, indicating the extent to which they were absorbed by the task at hand.
The researchers then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 35 participants in a state of flow. When people got "in the zone", their brains become more “modular”, which means connectivity within certain brain networks became stronger, resulting in greater distinction between these different networks.
Previous research has indicated that modular brain configurations are highly energy efficient, which may explain why complex tasks feel so easy when we enter a flow state. After analyzing the brain scans, the authors found that this increase in modularity was particularly apparent within the frontoparietal control network (FPCN), which is associated with focussed attention and complex problem-solving.
They also observed a notable increase in flexibility within the FPCN, as connectivity patterns regularly became reconfigured into new modular arrangements. This, they say, is the key to discovering solutions to complex problems and learning to master novel tasks.
“We show that flow is associated with a flexible and modular brain-network topology, which may offer an explanation for why flow is simultaneously perceived as high-control and effortless, even when the task difficulty is high,” write the authors.
Explaining how this alteration in connectivity enhances our abilities, Huskey uses the analogy of trying to find one’s key: “If you don’t know where your keys are, you’ll need to visit every room in your home and turn on every light. This will require a lot of energy,” he says.
“But if you remember where your keys are, even if you leave them in a different room each day, you can efficiently travel to the right room and turn on only the necessary lights. In many ways, this is similar to the brain during flow — only the necessary brain structures are networked together in an energy efficient way.”