You might know flow as that feeling of being in the zone when you run, dance, paint or work.
You might talk to a friend and all of the sudden, it is two hours later. Or, you might set out to write a short Facebook post, and it turns into a 900-word essay. We call these experiences micro flow.
Macro flow is an experience of peak performance. This is when you achieve truly great results in your career, sports or art.
Macro flow might also be a spiritual experience. It is usually described as a feeling of oneness. This oneness can materialize as a mountain that you are climbing or a universe as you practice kundalini yoga.
Flow states are magical, productive and deeply creative states. In this article, we will look under the hood of flow states, and you will learn:
- The precise definition of flow
- The practical benefits of experiencing more flow
- The characteristics of flow states
- How flow and mystical experiences are related
- And why flow and meditation are different from each other
Let’s get started!
What Are Flow States? (Definition)
Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we both feel our best and perform our best. The term flow was coined by the pioneer of positive psychology, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in 1975.
Peak performance expert Steven Kotler defines flow with even more detail and nuance:
Flow refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption, when you get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. Action and awareness merge. Your sense of self vanishes. Your sense of time distorts. And throughout, all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.
Accelerate Your Learning, Productivity and Creativity – The Benefits of Flow States
The intangible benefits of flow states are quite clear for me — and many flow seekers. It is not only the state where we perform at our best — we also feel our best.
Flow is what people feel when they enjoy what they are doing when they don’t want to be doing anything else. What makes flow so intrinsically motivating? The evidence suggests a simple answer: in flow, the human organism is functioning at its fullest capacity. When this happens, the experience is its own reward.
You might have heard about the 10,000-hour rule of learning a new skill before. The idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, and it says that you will need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any domain.
The benefit of flow state is that it challenges the 10,000-hour rule. This is why flow is often described as a state of optimal (or peak) performance.
Flow enthusiasts often cite a DARPA study where flow was induced artificially to train snipers, which boosted the speed with which they detected a threat by a factor of 2.3.
The promise of flow: Cut the time to mastery in half.
In their study about finding and fostering meaning at work, McKinsey found that when they ask executives during a peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average,(…) the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.
When we think about skills for the 21st century like learning, creativity, lateral thinking and problem-solving, we often remember our own flow experiences and the astonishing results they yielded.
This is because whilst we have been thinking of learning and creativity as skills, they might really be states of consciousness — flow states to be more precise.
Decoding the Characteristics of Flow States
I consciously practice inducing flow states with activities like yoga, ice baths, dancing or free diving. Even though all these experiences look quite different on the surface level, they share common characteristics.
The 6 Characteristics of Flow, According to Jeanne Nakamura and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi came to understand the characteristics of flow when he was actually on the hunt for something else — happiness.
He learned that “the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (Source)
The optimal experience of flow is characterized by:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
The 4 Characteristics of Flow, According to Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler (STER)
In 2017, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler coined the term STER to describe flow states:
- Selflessness: Your sense of self vanishes and you merge with your environment. This is when a surfer feels one with a wave or a yogi feels one with the universe during practice.
- Timelessness: Time speeds up or slows down. This is when you get so lost in the task that you do not even realize that hours have passed.
- Effortlessness: Whilst the task at hand is difficult and challenging, it just seems to click as you move through the experience.
- Richness: The environment, input and novelty is stimulating and fulfilling.
(Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler Stealing Fire)
The Weird Scientific Word That We Can Barely Remember: Transient Hypofrontality
The term transient hypofrontality was coined by Dr. Arne Dietrich in 2003 and made popular by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler.
It is the thesis about what happens in the brain during flow states. Transient means temporary, and hypofrontality refers to the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is the home of our higher cognitive functions. It helps with decision-making, planning, personality, values and morality. (Source)
Arne Dietrich describes his thesis as such:
It is proposed that transient hypofrontality is the unifying feature of all altered states and that the phenomenological uniqueness of each state is the result of the differential viability of various frontal circuits. The hallmark of altered states of consciousness is the subtle modification of behavioral and cognitive functions that are typically ascribed to the prefrontal cortex. (Source)
Experiencing Deep Flow States During a Life-Changing Mystical Experiences
The experience of flow states has often been linked to deep spiritual or mystical experiences — when one merges with the world. These are usually macro flow experiences, where all the six characteristics defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi show up at the same time with high intensity.
The mystical experience is underpinned by oneness, clarity, intensity and surrender.
In 2016, one of the leaders in studying mystical experiences, Dr. Andrew Newberg, published the book How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation. He is a pioneer in the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences. His research includes taking brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals and trance states.
For the book, he worked with Brazilian psychic mediums, Sufi mystics, Buddhist meditators, Franciscan nuns, Pentecostals and participants in secular spirituality rituals.
His thesis is that the mystical experience comes with a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe is responsible for body or spatial awareness (Source) which could explain the feeling of oneness with everything as the boundaries of our self and body become blurry.
He also discovered that whilst the mystical experience is transient, the positive change induced by the experience is lasting.
Meditation and Flow States Are Not the Same Thing! (Myth Busting)
Since flow has many faces (surfing, programming, yoga, painting), and we just discussed the mystical element of macro flow states, you might wonder if meditation is a flow state.
Indeed, the two states of consciousness are very similar and share many characteristics. In both states, the activity in the prefrontal cortex slows down. This part of the brain is what often is referred to as your ego. It is your sense of self, values, personality and logical decision making.
Meditation is focused on transcending the chatter of the monkey mind to forget the self.
Flow states take us almost there. The medial prefrontal cortex does not shut down in the same way during flow states as it does during meditation. It is the center of creative expression.
Essentially, flow states are often an active state of creation or creative self-expression. Steven Kotler says “Flow is creative self-expression turned to the maximum.” (Source)
Summary and Personal Flow Reflection
Before you dive back into your busy life on short attention spans and instant notifications, let’s anchor the concept of flow by reflecting on your personal flow experiences:
- When did you experience micro flow today?
- When was the last time you experienced a deep macro flow experience?
- What did you do?
- Who were you with?
- What did your environment look like?
- How did you experience flow states as a kid? What did you love doing?
You might see that your experiences of flow share some characteristics as well, and I truly want to invite you to cultivate the moments, cherish them and seek them. They are, after all, some of the moments when we feel our absolute best.