What is FLOW?

Have you ever done something and nothing else mattered? Been in a situation when you have been on point and everything you did seemed effortless and went incredibly smoothly? Been able to focus so hard that everything you did work that everything else just clicked? Where your creative juices ooze outside you and are able to paint, or write, or create music without even thinking? Me too. This is FLOW…

As stated in earlier post’s FLOW is Mihaly Csiksezentmihalyi’s brain child. Mihaly describes FLOW as:

“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”  

– Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

Characteristics of FLOW

Csikszentmihalyi states that there are 8 characteristics of FLOW:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding, has an end itself
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

What happens to your brain when you are in a state of flow is incredible, and it actually has the same effects as what alcohol and other drugs do.

From invesitagations by Arne Dietrich, on the State of FLOW in freestyle rappers, Arne dedecues the following:

The medial prefrontal cortex showed increased activity, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – DLPFC for short – showed decreased activity.  

The prefrontal cortex is an area responsible for higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration, and working memory. It’s an area that’s responsible for our conscious and explicit mind state.

What also happens in a state of flow,  is the prefrontal cortex is believed to temporarily down-regulate; a process called transient hypofrontality.  What results here may trigger the feeling of distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of inner-critic.

The inhibition of the prefrontal lobe may enable the implicit mind to take over, resulting in more brain areas to communicate freely and engage in a creative process. In other research, it’s also hypothesized that the flow state is related to the brain’s dopamine reward circuitry since curiosity is highly amplified.

In other words, when you are in a state of FLOW – you are less likely to be thinking I shouldn’t do this because I will get hurt, look stupid, have feelings of fear, despair, care what other people think or remember previous bad experiences. And more likely to trust yourself to produce quality work or just DO.

When the chemicals in our brain are released in this state of flow (and we will talk about what these chemicals are in a later post) it allows your mind to relax freeing up space for it to communicate to your body clearer than ever before.

Like you are a super human.

Flow to me is probably the greatest experience I have ever felt. What is so awesome about this sensation is we are all capable of it. EVERYONE can access FLOW. We just need to find what triggers it for you and how you can master your flow like state to get a better experience out of it, this will help you handle the other elements associated with FLOW so you can spend less time in Frustration and Comedown and more time in FLOW (click here to find out what I’m talking about). 

I truly believe that if we are able to tap into these flow like states we will be able to function at a higher level in EVERYTHING that we do. Csikszentmihalyi came up with FLOW in his studies for happiness (click here to view the TED talk). Kotler further broke down this study with his application and investigation of extreme sports athletes in his book the rise of superman (something that I am hugely passionate about – click here to buy the book). 

Now that we have an overview of what FLOW is you might recall times when you have experinced it, where it be in your work, your personal life, with your partner, your kids, playing games etc.

What we are going to continue to explore in this blog is how we can hack FLOW and help organisations, your business, and you get into FLOW like states with ease. The theory behind this will enable you to tap into your inner super human – work better, build better relationships, create something beautiful, be happier, be more awesome and inspire others to do the same – because FLOW is infectious….


Arne Dietrich is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. His research is concerned with the higher cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex, especially creativity and altered states of consciousness. This extract was paraphased from his journal published on Scientific America.com

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