Have you ever been so engrossed in a task that you just … lose yourself in it? No awareness of time or outside influences; no inner criticism of yourself or your performance – just pure focus and enjoyment from exploring the job at hand.
There are a number of terms for this phenomenon: you might think of it as being in the zone, or getting into hack mode. But in the field of psychology, it’s known as entering a flow state, or being “in flow” – and it’s a surprisingly specific and unique state of mind in its own right.
What is a flow state?
The term “flow state” was first coined by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1970, and it was at first quite a literal name: “I gave it the name ‘flow’ because ‘flow’ was very often mentioned by people,” he explained in one 2017 interview. Describing their experiences with the phenomenon, he recounted, people would phrase it as like “being carried by [a] river,” in which tasks were performed “spontaneously” and “automatically” – and, from that, he recalled, “‘flow’ was the name that came out.”
Despite that somewhat vague-sounding origin, today, flow is much more tightly understood. It’s not just a state of effortless focus – as scientists have learned in recent years, it actually comes with several observable changes in the brain.
“Underneath the flow state is a complicated mass of neurobiology,” Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective and Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, told Big Think.
“There are fundamental changes in neuroanatomy – which is where in the brain something’s taking place – neurochemistry, and neuroelectricity, which is the two ways the brain communicates with itself,” he explained.
And given we’re talking about a state of mind defined as improving our focus and productivity, those changes might not be quite what you were expecting.
“In flow, parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down, shutting down,” Kotler said. “For example, why does time pass so strangely in flow? Because David Eagleman discovered that time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. When parts of it start to wink out, we can no longer separate past from present from future and we’re plunged into what researchers call the deep now.”
In technical terms, this is known as transient hypofrontality – aka the temporary reduction in prefrontal cortex activity. That’s the part of your brain responsible for the highest-order cognitive abilities, like planning, decision making, working memory, personality expression, social behavior, and speech and language control – in fact, it’s such an important part of the brain that it’s sometimes been thought of as what separates us from other great apes.
Put like that, entering a state of flow doesn’t sound like a particularly good thing – and indeed, when transient hypofrontality was first observed back in the 1990s, “it had a very negative connotation,” Kotler agreed. “It was found in schizophrenics and drug addicts.”
But as research continued, it was found that this altered state turned up in all kinds of situations: when you’re dreaming, meditating, getting lost in music, or, yes, getting high. And depending on what you’re doing, different parts of the prefrontal cortex get affected: “in flow one of the most prominent examples is the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex,” Kotler explained. “This is the part of the brain that houses your inner critic, that nagging, defeatist, always-on voice in your head.”
“[That] turns off in flow,” he said. “And as a result, we feel this liberation… We are finally getting out of our own way. We’re free of ourselves. Creativity goes up. Risk-taking goes up and we feel amazing.”
That’s not the only brain change that’s going on when you achieve flow, though. Studies have linked various neurochemical changes to the state too: the dopamine system, which regulates motivation, pleasure, and reward and can suppress sensations like hunger, is known to play an important role – perhaps explaining why those in a state of flow can so easily seem to power through hunger or fatigue.
“[In flow] the brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry,” Kolter explained. “You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals… they make you faster, stronger, quicker and they do the same thing with your brain.”
How (and why) to get into flow state
With all these feel-good chemicals pumping through our brains, it’s no surprise that being in flow can feel pretty awesome. In fact, it might be “the most addictive state on earth,” Kolter suggested. “Once an experience starts producing flow, we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of it, which is why researchers now believe flow is the source code of intrinsic motivation.”
It’s not just pure chemical reactions that make flow important, though. Research has found a range of benefits from entering the cognitive state: from improved performance and skill, to greater motivation and ability to complete tasks, flow comes with quite a few benefits outside of just feeling good in the moment.
On top of that, flow has been linked to improved psychological outcomes. If you’re able to get into a flow state, you’re more likely to be happier and feel more satisfied with your life; your mental health and well-being may benefit, and it can help you make positive changes in your behavior and approach towards life.
In other words, there are many reasons to try to enter a flow state. But how, exactly, does one go about doing that?
Often, entering flow is something that happens by accident, while you’re not really thinking about it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any ways to cheat the system – and while inducing the state may never be something you can do on command, by creating the right circumstances, we can certainly make it more likely to occur.
Part of that is going to be the environment – both mental and physical – that you set up. You need to allow yourself enough time to enter the flow state, and not put too much pressure on yourself about it – remember, the state is marked by a lack of self-awareness, so concentrating too much is already working against you. You might also find that a quiet, distraction-free environment is helpful, so maybe set your phone to Do Not Disturb before you get going.
But unsurprisingly, a major part of achieving flow on a task is, well, the task itself. You’re going to want something with clear goals, Csíkszentmihályi explained in his 1997 book Finding Flow: the Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, as well as something pitched just right difficulty-wise: too easy, and you’re going to get bored or apathetic, while something too difficult will just make you frustrated or anxious.
“Flow… happens when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable,” he explained, “so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.”
Thus “if challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them,” he advised. “If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”
Finding activities that meet these criteria may sound daunting, but really there are many possibilities – ranging from sports to music, to gardening, or even just calm pastimes like solving puzzles or reading your favorite book.
Most importantly, though, the trick is to find something you actually want to do. “When we’re curious about something, we don’t have to struggle,” Kolter told Big Think. “We don’t have to burn a lot of calories trying to pay attention to it.”
“Once you have purpose, the system demands autonomy,” he added. “I want the freedom to pursue my purpose. And once you have that freedom, the system wants the last of the big motivators, mastery. Mastery is the skills to pursue that purpose well.”