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Science, Mihaly and His Legacy

“Concentration is like breathing: you never think of it. The roof could fall in and, if it missed you,you would be unaware of it.” – Chess player

In 1992, during the NBA championship series, the Portland Trailblazers were winning over the Chicago Bulls when the Bulls’ coach called a timeout. Michael Jordan came out of this timeout with a sense of intense concentration, hitting three six-pointers, looking almost surprised by his performance. He would later describe this experience as being ‘in the zone.’

Now, people in every sport describe a similar experience, where they tune out the crowd, noise, and distraction and play their best game. But this experience isn’t limited just to sports. Musicians, doctors, painters, mountain climbers, authors, engineers, composers all experience being in the zone.

It is a strange paradox where time seems to stand still and yet be over in an instance. It feels effortless even though it’s an extreme challenge. There is a sense of relaxation, but it’s also powerful and intense. You feel more present than ever, but you also seem to lose your sense of self.

You probably experienced this yourself when you were so engaged in an activity that you lost the sense of time and place. There is a term for this, and it is called ‘being in a state of flow.’ And if we want to be fully empowered to own our creative processes and engage in deep and meaningful work, we must understand what it means to achieve a state of flow.

The Science of Flow

Flow theory was developed in the 1970s when Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi became fascinated by artists who were so lost in their work that they would lose track of time, space, and themselves and even forget to eat, drink and sleep. Through his research, he noticed similar experiences with other people skilled in various areas, namely scientists, authors, athletes, and others engaged in meaningful work. It was a state of hyper-focus and utter engagement that Csikszentmihalyi described as an ‘optimal state.’ 

This is how Csikszentmihalyi embarked upon what soon became one of the most extensive psychological surveys ever. He started interviewing people worldwide, from chess players and surgeons to Navajo sheepherders and Italian farmers, asking them about the times in their lives when they felt and performed their best.

And everyone told him the same thing, regardless of their age, class, gender, and education levels – that they felt and performed their best when they were in a state of flow. Csikszentmihalyi chose the term ‘flow’ because his interviewees would describe their experience of a state where every decision and action led fluidly to the next.

The science of flow dates way back to the 1970s. In the early 1900’s researchers like William James and physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon would document the ways our brains can alter consciousness to improve performance, discovering the link between mind and body, the ‘fight or flight’ response that helped explain this heightened performance.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow would touch on this topic again in the 1940s, describing states of flow, which he called peak experiences, as shared commonalities among successful people. However, the theory of flow gained the solidified shape that it has now with Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. 

Although researchers don’t have one universal working model for flow theory, the following five factors identified by Csikszentmihalyi are crucial for achieving a state of flow:

  1. Find a task that you deem intrinsically rewarding;
  2. Set clear goals and have a sense of progress;
  3. Your task needs to have clear and immediate feedback;
  4. The task’s challenge must match your perceived skills, which requires a sense of personal control over the task. The reason is simple, if the task is too easy, you may experience boredom or apathy, and if a task is too hard, you might become anxious; and
  5. You must have an intense focus on the present moment.

Over the years, researchers have made substantial progress on the theory of flow. Advancements in brain imaging technologies have allowed them to apply metrics where once was an only subjective experience. A lot was learned, including that Mihaly was right in choosing the term’ flow.’ Why? Because the state emerges from a profound alteration of our normal brain function.

When we are in flow, our attention heightens, and conscious processing is swapped out for the quicker and more efficient processing of the subconscious, innate system. As Arne Dietrich, a neuroscientist from an American University in Beirut, explains: ‘It is an efficiency exchange, where the energy usually used for higher cognitive functions is traded for heightened attention and awareness.’

Another neuroscientist, Charles Limb, used fMRI to examine the brainwork of improv jazz musicians in flow. He discovered that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain known for self-monitoring, our ‘inner critic’) would deactivate. This way, any second-guessing would shut down, and a state of flow would dominate. The result was freedom and free-flowing creativity, where risks became less frightening, and people would perform better than ever.

Changes in brain wave function also happen. When in flow, we shift from the fast beta wave of waking consciousness to the slower borderline between alpha (a ‘day-dreaming‘ mode where we jump from idea to idea without internal resistance) and theta waves (which show up only during REM or right before we fall asleep). 

There is also the neurochemistry of flow. Neuroscientists from the Bonn University in Germany have discovered that endorphins are certainly part of flow’s experience, as well as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and anandamide. All five are performance-enhancing, pleasure-inducing neurochemicals, boosting everything from attention to muscle reaction times, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking – the three primary factors for rapid problem-solving.

This brings us to the conclusion that Csikszentmihalyi was more right than he could have ever guessed – not only does a state of flow feel flowy, neurobiologically, it is flowy. What does this tell us? It tells us that, for the first time, we have started to discover the solution for optimal performance. What once was achievable for such people as top athletes, scientists, and artists can now be possible for everyone else, making this a monumental legacy from Csikszentmihalyi to humankind.

Read the third part of this article here.


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