Introduction to Flow State
“Everything goes silent. Time slows. My peripheral vision fades away. It’s the most peaceful state of mind I’ve ever known.” – Danny Way, Professional Skateboarder
In the 1960s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high Chik-sent-me-high) at the University of Chicago set out on a journey to find what makes people truly happy. He found that people – regardless of class, gender, age, occupation, or ethnicity – felt their best when they experienced intrinsically motivated, high-focus, and often high-risk, activities. He coined the term “flow state” to describe this optimal state of consciousness when we feel and perform our best, a state when one is so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Within this state, every action, movement and decision flows effortlessly from the last.
Think of Steph Curry draining shot after shot. Tiger on the back nine at the Masters. Alex Honnold free-climbing up El Capitan. During flow, action and awareness merge together. Our sense of self squanders, which decreases stress and anxiety and gives our brains more energy to focus on the task at hand and the skills required to perform. On the physical side, strength and endurance increase significantly while our senses of pain and fatigue dissipate. On the cognitive level, motivation, creativity, learning, memory, and much more increase exponentially.
Based on these qualities, one might think of flow as a state of heightened cognitive function – an abundance of activity in the brain that allows us to operate and perform at higher levels. In reality, the opposite is true. During flow, a phenomenon known as “transient hypofrontality” takes place. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain responsible for many important cognitive functions, including executive attention, decision-making, long-term thinking, and our sense of self. During transient hypofrontality, the prefrontal cortex shuts down.
As we move into flow, our energy-expensive extrinsic system – the system the prefrontal cortex largely controls – is swapped out for the more efficient intrinsic system, or subconscious. In simple terms, our brains take all of the energy typically used for conscious thought processes and redirect it toward action and attention in the task at hand. This simultaneous increase in energy and focus mixed with a decrease in conscious thought unfailingly leads to greater performance – no matter the activity.
Since the initial discoveries by Csikszentmihalyi, psychologists around the world have studied flow across a variety of domains – sports, art, business, meditation, and everyday work. At Hypower Performance, we continuously search for ways to get our athletes into flow early and often in training sessions and aim to keep them in the state for as long as possible. In our next article, we will discuss “flow triggers” – the conditions needed for one to cross over into the world of flow. For now, understand that this state is both real and biologically universal, meaning we are all capable of tapping in. And when it comes to peak performance, learning, or feeling fulfilled – flow should always be our goal.
Written by Alex Kaslander
Trainer at HyPower Performance