Go with the flow

July 26th, 2022

Written by: Joe Stucynski

Have you ever become so completely absorbed doing something that you lose track of time, forget to eat or drink, or completely tune out the world? Did you feel a sense of fulfilment or satisfaction as you engrossed yourself in that activity? If so, you may have experienced what psychologists and neuroscientists call ‘flow’, a state of mind in which you are maximally engaged in the task at hand. This can frequently occur in a variety of contexts, ranging from sports, to artistic endeavors like playing music, painting, or writing, to playing video games, or even to working. Being in a state of flow can often be the most productive time of being awake.1 However what your brain is doing while in flow is only just beginning to be understood.

While the mental state of flow has been described in various forms for a long time, the term ‘flow’ was first coined in 1975 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi during his investigations of why some painters would paint for so long that they simply stopped caring about time and skipped meals.2 In his ensuing publications he describes a series of characteristics that define the state. Firstly, there must be a complete and total engagement of attention and focus on the present moment with the feeling of complete control over the situation. There must also be a loss of self-referential thinking, ie. ‘losing yourself’ in the moment, which almost always results in a loss of time perception and responsiveness to the environment. And lastly being in a flow state is naturally and intrinsically rewarding and creates a positive feedback loop that motivates you to keep doing that activity. (For your word-of-the-day, such an intrinsically rewarding experience is called an ‘autotelic’ activity.) Most importantly, flow results from a balance of your perceived skill and the actual challenge involved.2 If the task is too easy it could be boring or relaxing depending on your skill level, whereas if the challenge is high but you are not good at the task it could be anxiety inducing. However if your own skill is advanced enough to meet the demand of the challenge, the resulting state will be one of fulfilling, productive flow. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. The spectrum of cognitive emotional states balancing skill level with challenge level. Flow most commonly occurs with high challenge and high skill.

The network dynamics of which brain areas are working together to induce the flow state are still understudied. However, it can be thought of in simple terms as one of several possible ‘modes’ that an awake brain can be in. For instance, much work has been done identifying the resting state of the awake brain called the Default Mode Network. This is a networked collection of brain areas that are most active while your brain is on autopilot and you are not actively engaged tasks that demand a lot of attention. Naturally then it might seem that a flow state would involve opposite brain activity compared to the default mode, and indeed some experimental evidence supports this.

For example, several fMRI studies induced a flow state by having participants perform math problems tailored to their skill level while in the scanner and then observed which brain regions increased or decreased in activity during a state of rest or in a self-reported flow state.3,4 They found that while in flow, the medial prefrontal cortex which is normally very active at default and is responsible for self-referential thinking, was comparatively quieter. Activity was also increased in the inferotemporal gyrus and insula which are responsible for feelings of control and internal state, and in the basal ganglia which mediates goal-directed actions, predicted outcomes, and reward processing. Increased activity in these reward and goal-related areas help to construct the self-reinforcing positive feedback that maintains the flow state and keeps us in the zone.3,4

Importantly however, there is an optimal balance of activity across this flow network. By tweaking task conditions of the math problems, the researchers were able to push the study participants into boredom or overload, resulting in activity patterns in these various brain areas resembling an upside down ‘U’ shape in which too much or too little activity would disrupt the flow.4 An example of such activity patterns can be seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Optimal flowing performance on a task results from a balance of brain arousal and optimal neural activity across the brain areas in the flow state network. Partially adapted from van der Linden et al. 2021.5

One of the main brain areas responsible for maintaining arousal and wakefulness and regulating brain states more broadly is the Locus Coeruleus (LC). This small collection of neurons located in the brainstem is also postulated to exhibit a distinct pattern of activity while in flow. LC neurons have two modes of firing; they can activate tonically, at a steady rate over long periods of time, or activate rapidly in a burst pattern. In the past it has been found that task engagement and high attentional load is associated most strongly with steady tonic LC activity with only occasional task related bursting. This balance between tonic and burst firing also strongly correlates with the upside down ‘U’ activity profile exhibited by other brain areas necessary for flow states.5

Flow also involves task induced changes in pupil diameter associated with optimal brain arousal.5  This physiological indicator further supports the notion that LC and the norepinephrine system, which are known to tightly control pupil diameter across wake and also various sleep stages, help control brain arousal levels induced during flow. For more information about how LC controls the arousal state of the brain along a spectrum in response to environmental conditions read here.

In summary, being in the zone involves not just performing at peak skill level during sports or creative pursuits but also unique brain activity patterns that enable and support that performance. When you’re fully immersed in that activity and you know exactly what to do and how to do it, everything just flows. And as brain network research continues its trend towards becoming a hot topic in neuroscience, it’s likely that we will learn many more details about how this flow operates in the brain, enabling us to be so productive while also being so rewarding.

References

  1. Harris DJ., Vine SJ., Wilson MR. Neurocognitive mechanisms of the flow state. Progress in Brain Research, 2017.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial, New York, 1990.
  3. Ulrich M., Keller J., Hoenig K., Waller C., Gron G. Neural Correlates of experimentally induced flow experiences. NeuroImage, 2014.
  4. Ulrich M., Keller J., Gron G. Neural signatures of experimentally induced flow experiences identified in a typical fMRI block design with BOLD imaging. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2016.
  5. Van der Linden D., Tops M., Bakkar AB. The Neuroscience of the Flow State: Involvement of the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System. Frontiers in Psychology, 2021.

Cover image by Jon Manning via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 1 by Oliverbeatson via Wikimedia Commons

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