The Science of the Flow State Performance

We are all looking for a flow state for effortless high performance. There are numerous approaches out there promising to trigger flow in you or in your team. Yet, it seems a rare state to be achieved and sustained. Let’s start with the basics. Is flow another hype, an esoteric experience or does it really exist?

Flow is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed:

  • in a feeling of energized focus;
  • in full effortless involvement;
  • in full enjoyment;
  • experiencing loss of sense of self and time.

The flow state concept was first brought to science by an Hungarian origin American psychologists Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. In ancient wisdom, there are references to the flow state already from thousands of years ago.

Flow state has been researched in business, arts and sports. Its main effect across the various disciplines appears the same: superior cognitive and physical performance.This in turn manifests as innovation, better financial results and more value added for all stakeholders.

In a 5000+ participants study by McKinsey over 2003-2013, top executives reported being 500% more productive in flow. In other words, if we could increase the time we spend in flow by 15-20%, our overall organizational productivity would almost double.Imagine the kind organizational energy, if everyone could complete their weekly tasks on a Monday!

Only during the last decade, the Neuroscientists have been able to unveil the flow state through neuroimaging techniques and see what actually happens in our brain. Let us uncover some of the secrets behind the brain mechanisms involved in producing the flow state.

Various studies by Harvard Medical School, Stanford University, John Hopkins University, University of Toronto and University of Bonn among others discovered that achieving peak performance state of flow is associated with changes in the brain’s anatomical functioning and in the balance of brain chemicals.

How does the brain anatomy change in flow?

There are two major shifts happening:

  • There is a brain shift from the slow sequential processing of the rational pre-frontal cortex, to the parallel fast processing of limbic region, in charge of regulating our emotions and feelings. Such a shift sparks new, creative and spontaneous connections between information and events, enabling us to come up with innovative solutions. As the prefrontal cortex is also regulating self-awareness and time recognition – this may explain why we lose the sense of self and time in the flow state.
  • The scientists found that in flow, our brain moves from the hyper-active gamma and beta waves to a steady flow of the hypo-active alpha waves. It is a state of being concentrated, yet relaxed creating space for fewer, yet deeper connections and focus. Alpha waves facilitate the free flow of information, resulting in a sense of effortless execution of the task and increased creativity.

How does Neurochemistry change in flow?

All brain activity results from the neurochemical reactions in the synaptic gaps between our 85 billion neurons. The type of chemical, or neurotransmitter, released, determines our feelings and reactions to the stimuli that generated them.

Flow state releases a unique cocktail of performance enhancing neurochemicals: dopamine, anandamide, noradrenalin, serotonin and endorphins. Dopamine and serotonin, besides oxytocin are found in high levels in our body when we are in love. No wonder then that being in a flow state feels like being in love and the other way around 😉

So, how to trigger these biological and psychological changes in our brain?

Based on research, it seems there are two opposing camps. Some research suggests data that flow can not be artificially induced – that it is a state of being, or happening. Other experts are confident that if you just follow a certain methodology, you can let a flow state emerge by design. Find out our experiences and practical recommendations in the next blog post Sustainable High Performance – How to Get Into the Flow?

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