Think left and think right. Think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try! — Dr. Suess
Steve Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, sat down with Big Think to explain what flow is and the cycles you can plan for to try and get yourself into the state.
Steve says ‘Flow’ is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness, referring to those moments of total absorption when we get so focused on the task at hand everything else disappears. He says when in ‘Flow’ all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof.
According to Steve, parts of your brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing or shutting down. Your sense of morality, your sense of will, and your sense of self all shut down. One prominent example is the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, the nagging, defeatist, always on voice in our head. In ‘Flow’ we feel liberation. We free ourselves. Creativity goes up, risk taking goes up, and we feel amazing.
Besides the neuroanatomical changes in flow, he says there are also neurochemical changes. The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. As a result, flow is considered the most addictive state on earth. Steve says the neurochemicals augment the creative process. On the front end of the ‘Flow’ state you get norepinephrine and dopamine, which lower the signal to noise ratio. Our ability to link ideas together is enhanced. We take in more information. We link it together. Anandamide, another chemical showing up in ‘Flow’, doesn’t just promote pattern recognition. Steve says it promotes lateral thinking, which is linking very different ideas together.
Steve says in studies run by his organization, The Flow Genome, he’s found creativity is increased 500 to 700% in ‘Flow’. He says when people want more flow in their lives, the number one thing he tells them is flow is a four-part cycle. You have to move through all four parts of the cycle before you can return to the ‘Flow’ state itself.
He discovered at the front end of the ‘Flow’ state, there is a struggle phase. We load and overload our brain with information. It’s unpleasant as a general rule. Steve says after struggle, we move to release. This means you literally have to take your mind off the problem. He says we’re trading conscious processing for sub-conscious processing, which is extremely fast and very energy efficient.
Once you move through release, underneath the surface neurobiologically, there’s a global release of nitric oxide. Steve says this flushes all the stress hormones out of your system and replaces them with feel good performance enhancing neurochemicals. You’re now in the ‘Flow’ state. This is the third state of the struggle. On the back end of flow state, he says there is actually a recovery phase. You go from this amazing high of flow to a very deep low that shows up in recovery. A lot of those feel good neurochemicals have drained out of your system. He says the most important thing in recovery is some emotional fortitude. You have to hold on to your emotions and not get stressed out at the fact you no longer feel like superman. You can view his full comments here.