Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel youbest and perform your best. More specifically, the term 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 (either, typically, speeds up; or, occasionally, slows down). And throughout, all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.
The synonyms for flow are endless: peak experiences, being in the zone, runner’s high, being unconscious, the forever box, etc. Flow is something of a technical term. It emerged from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s early research into the state, where interview subjects—in one of the largest psychological surveys ever conducted— consistently described the experience of flow as one where every decision, every action, flows seamlessly, perfectly, effortlessly, from the last—like (as Csikszentmihalyi once explained) “playing jazz.” In other words, the term “flow” is actually a phenomenological description of the experience—it describes how the state makes us feel. In short, flow feels flowy.
The research of Csikszentmihalyi and a few other scientists uncovered ten core characteristics (see list below) that underpin the state. While each of these phenomena can be experienced independently, when they all show up together—that’s flow. Or, at least, that’s the original idea. Here at FGP, we deviate slightly from this notion. While we absolutely agree that the first six of these characteristics constitute flow, we’re not yet convinced the last four (intense concentration, immediate feedback, clear goals, and the challenge/skills ratio) are characteristics of the state.
Instead, we think these four are actually “ flow triggers” or pre-conditions that lead to the experience. This is not to say that these ‘characteristics’ aren’t present during the state, we are simply arguing that they tend to arise before the state itself and are actually drivers that propel us into it.
We think this is true, because, in our research for The Rise of Superman, hundreds of athletes described using these four “characteristics” as ways to drive themselves into the state. We also tested this idea within our community (see research methodology below) and got a bit more proof. That said, we’re not totally convinced we’re right either—so we’ve teamed up with outside scientists/researchers to drill down further. Currently, we’re attempting to take a deeper look at this triggers in our Flow and Creativity study and our Flow and Psychedelics study (see ongoing research below).
Whatever the case, if you want to know if an experience qualifies as flow, you can use these ten items (or, if you agree with us, the first six) as a checklist.
1. Action and Awareness Merge. The doer and the doing become one. From the perspective of consciousness, we become the action. In other words, actions feel automatic and require little or no additional resources.
2. Selflessness. Our sense of self disappears. Our sense of self-consciousness as well. The inner critic is silenced.
3. Timelessness. We experience an altered perception of time. Past and future disappear and we are plunged into an eternal present, a deep now.
4. Effortlessness. Our sense of struggle and strife vanishes. The experience becomes intrinsically-rewarding or—in technical parlance—“autotelic.”
5. Paradox of Control. We have a powerful sense of control over the situation. We are captain of our own ship; master of this small slice of destiny.
6. Intrinsic Motivation. The experience is intrinsically motivating. We do it for love not money. We do it because the activity itself is so incredibly enthralling that it’s its own reward.
7. Intense Concentration. More specifically, intense concentration on a limited field of information. Total focus on the right here, right now. Complete
absorption in the present moment.
8. Challenge/Skills Balance. The challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds our skill set so we have to push ourselves outside our comfort zone. But not too far outside. We have to stretch, not snap.
9. Clear Goals. These are not big goals (like winning the Olympics in downhill skiing), rather they are much smaller chunks (like getting out of the starting gate fast). What’s critical is we know what we’re doing now and we know what we’re doing next so attention can stay focused in the present.
10. Immediate Feedback. The gap between cause and effect is tiny—so we can always course-correct mid-flight.
*It is also important to know that flow is not an all-or-nothing experience; rather it’s a spectrum experiences this, as Fredrik Ullen reported in his great paper on the physiological components of flow (see further reading below): “degree of flow is a continuous variable that can be used to characterize the experiential quality of an everyday activity.”
In a phrase—“Yes, but does it grow corn.” We borrowed that phrase from Ojibwa medicine man Sun Bear, whose full quote is: “if your philosophy (or religion) doesn’t
grow corn, I don’t want to hear about it.” This means we take a rigorous, multidisciplinary and supremely practical approach to flow science and research. At our core, we’re “flow hackers.” We’re people who are very, very interested in generating more flow in our lives. That’s the corn we’re
trying to grow. To that end, we like to start our research by talking to people with the most flow in their lives. While we cast a much wider net today, in the beginning this meant action and adventure sports athletes (who routinely and loudly proclaim that without flow they cannot do their jobs), members of Special Forces (who feel the same), and artists (ditto). Since much of this work is subjective—thus somewhat squishy from a research perspective—we try to talk to lots and lots of people. If one, two or three tell us something, that’s an interesting data point. If several hundred say the same thing, that’s a pattern. And we’re hunting patterns. Hidden areas of overlap. Similar language, feelings, ideas and experiences.
Next, we lay those findings atop the science. We’re multi-disciplinary at the core so we try to surround the question. We do a thorough literature review. We also talk to lots of scientists. For us to take an idea seriously and treat it as (tentative) fact, we need to really like the original source research, find a lot of top experts in the relevant fields who agree with the findings, find a bunch of top experts who disagree (and take a hard look at why), and, finally, find the research in line with the patterns we discovered in our interviews with top performers.
From there, we experiment. We test our ideas on ourselves and encourage others to test them with us. FGP is an open source research project. We are experiential and experimental. Inside the organization, we have an amazing group of volunteer flow hackers (Flow Hacker Nation)—a great many of whom are experts in their own fields—who are gleefully willing to help us figure out which ideas actually grow corn.
In practice, this often means we turn findings into action plans, introduce them in “beta test” classes to our community, and see what works. Do these ideas work in the wild? Can they increase the amount of flow in our lives? With after-action follow ups—interviews, surveys, etc.—we track results. For measuring flow, we like psychologist Susan Jackson’s Flow State Scale, a well-validated psychometric instrument (that is, a questionnaire) frequently used to measure flow.
From there, we take all this info and create new action plans and repeat. If we continue to get real results we go one step further—we join up with academics and other leading experts for a more formalized testing process with a more varied group of study subjects (see ongoing research below).
Yes and yes. Flow comes in two kinds—individual and group. When someone uses the term “flow” they’re describing an individual performing at their very peak. The term “group flow” refers to the shared, collective experience of the state: a group performing at their peak. For a great look at flow, check out Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. For a great look at group flow, check out Keith Sawyer’s book, Group Genius.
Furthermore, flow is a spectrum experience. It’s like anger. You can be a little mad or homicidally murderous: same emotion, different degrees. Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Jackson discovered that the same thing is true of flow. You can be in a state of micro-flow or a lighter version of the state—like what happens when you fall into a great conversation at work and one great idea leads to the next great idea and you totally lose track of time and wow was that fun! Or you can experience a state of macro-flow, where all of those core characteristics show up so strongly that the experience itself takes on otherworldly, quasi-mystical qualities—for example, time slows to a crawl and you feel one with the universe.
Let’s start at the beginning—there is no agreed upon neurobiological definition of flow. That said, there is a strongly emerging consensus. In the state, we typically see a decrease in brain activity, primarily in the prefrontal cortex (what’s technically called “transient hypofrontality), but this down-regulation appears to capable extend into other regions (and networks) as well. For example, in flow, people frequently report feeling “oneness with everything” or what researchers term “unity.” Our board member, Dr. Andrew Newberg, back when he was still at the University of Pennsylvania (currently at Jefferson), used SPECT scans of to discover that cosmic unity results from the deactivation of the right parietal lobe (a part of the brain that helps us separate self from other—see the Dean Potter chapter in Rise of Superman for more details).
Many researchers have argued (Andrew Newberg, David Eagleman, etc.) that this deactivation is actually an efficiency exchange. Because the brain has a fixed energy budget and flow demands laser-focused attention in the present, the brain makes trade-offs. It trades energy normally used for other purposes and reallocates it for attention—thus parts of the brain (no longer receiving that energy) begin to power down.
Concurrent with these shifts in neuroanatomical function, in flow, we see further changes in neuro-electrical function. Extensive EEG research conducted by our colleagues, Leslie Sherlin and his team at SenseLabs, and Chris Berka, and her team at Advanced Brain Monitoring, also show that in flow brainwaves shift from the high beta wave signature of normal, waking consciousness down to the slower waves of the alpha/theta borderline. While, it appears, people in flow still experience all sorts of other brainwaves, the research shows we consistently return to this alpha/theta baseline.
It’s also worth pointing out that the brainwave question seems far from settled.
There’s also a bunch of data that shows that alpha waves alone might correlate with flow; and a bunch of data that shows that mid-line theta may be the signature. We are at the front end of a very long research project that attempts to settle this issue (see ongoing research below), but—please be patient—solving this one might take a while.
Furthermore, we also see a potent shift in neurochemistry. What is the exact nature of that shift? That’s still in question. But it appears that a combination of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin and, sometimes, oxytocin floods the system. Do all of these chemicals show up in every flow state?
Not likely, but we don’t yet know for certain. Nor do we understand the order of the cascade or if that order is the same in every person. And while genetics (and epigenetics) definitely play a role here too, we don’t yet know their exact impact either.
Finally, there’s a growing consensus that flow is an emergent property and may not be clearly linkable to exact mechanistic causes. In other words, flow may emerge when a certain level of complexity (i.e. activity) in certain brain regions or networks is reached—sort of like a threshold—above which flow emerges. And while this is probably true, many researchers—including FGP—have found that knowledge of these neurobiological mechanisms can be used to prompt flow. In other words, even though we think there’s much, much, much more work to be done, from a hacker’s perspective, the above information is enough to grow corn.
Flow states have triggers, or pre-conditions that lead to more flow. Essentially, flow can only arise when all of our attention is focused in the present moment, so that’s what these triggers do—they drive attention into the here and now. Put differently, these triggers are the very things that evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention to, so, in using these triggers to hack flow, we’re really just using evolutionary biology to our advantage.
Csikszentmihalyi identified four of these triggers (though he argued they’re characteristics of flow and not causal). Our research shows that when skillfully deployed (see The Rise of Superman for details), these “characteristics” consistently generate more flow and are better classified as “triggers.”
1. Complete Concentration in the Present Moment
2. Immediate Feedback
3. Clear Goals
4. The Challenge-Skills Ratio (that is, the challenge of the task at hand
stretches our skills to the utmost).
University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Sawyer extended this original list, identifying ten triggers that produce “group flow.”
1. Shared Goals (everyone in the group is working towards the same end)
2. Close Listening (you’re paying complete attention to what is being said)
3. Yes And (conversations are additive, not combative)
4. Complete Concentration (total focus in the right here, right now)
5. A sense of control (each member of the group feels in control, but still
6. Blending Egos (each person can submerge their ego needs into the group’s)
7. Equal Participation (skills levels are roughly equal everyone is involved)
8. Familiarity (people know one another and understand their tics and tendencies)
9. Constant Communication (a group version of immediate feedback)
10. Shared, Group Risk (everyone has some skin in the game)
Research with both artists and action and adventure sports athletes have fingered four more triggers (again see Rise of Superman for a more detailed breakdown).
1. High consequences (that is, some kind of risk: physical, mental, social, emotional, etc.)
2. Deep Embodiment (the engagement of multiple sensory streams at once, learning through doing)
3. Rich Environment (lots of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in the environment)
4. Creativity (specifically, pattern recognition, or the linking together of new ideas)
We also suspect that there are a great many as of yet undiscovered triggers. For example, research consistently shows that sex (and, especially, kinky sex… see Stealing Fire for details) can generate flow, but no one has looked at what, exactly, is the causal agent. For another example, a lot of athletes report that frame rate—how fast objects move past their eyes—may function like a trigger. Once again, more research that needs to be done.
As far as we know, no one has looked at this question directly. But NIH geneticist Dean Hamer has argued that there are genes that code specifically for the production of the neurochemicals that show up in flow and University of Washington in St. Louis psychologist Robert Cloninger has correlated this neurochemistry with our ability to experience many of the core characteristics of the state. It also appears that the flow triggers to which one is most susceptible are somewhat shaped by genetics. Since risk is a flow trigger, for example, the sensitivity of dopamine receptors (which are, at least partially, genetically determined) would play a huge role in our ability to play with this trigger.
The Flow Profile: The profile is something of a trait-ology, meaning it says if you’re this kind of person, you’re most likely to find flow in this direction. That said, when we first created this survey, it was meant as an introduction to these concepts more than a formal bit of research. Yet, as more than 70,000 people (as of Dec. 2017) have taken this questionnaire, it has become one of the largest surveys ever conducted in optimal psychology. What’s more, it’s proven itself effective. People consistently report that the information provided by the profile is extremely useful as a guide for hunting more flow. For these reasons, we’ve started to treat our results as “a found data set” (which is common in fields like anthropology) and are now using it as a basis for further inquiry.
Testing the Triggers: In a joint research project conducted with Google in 2015, FGP trained a group of engineers in four basic principles of high performance and the use of four triggers. After six weeks of daily work, study subjects reported a 30-80 percent increase in flow. Starting in early 2017, we’re moving into a more formal examination of the flow triggers. We’ve teamed up with a team of academics to create a more rigorous survey of the triggers and their role in generating flow. For example…
Flow and Creativity: In 2015, we began thinking hard about better ways to evaluate flow’s impact on creativity. Work done by Csikszentmihaly (described in his awesome book Creativity), coupled with independent studies done by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile and University of Sydney professors Allen Snyder and Richard Chi, show that flow can significantly boost creativity and that that heightened creativity seems to outlast the state by a day, sometimes two. But no one has figured out exactly which specific creative skills (i.e., idea generation or problem solving etc.) are impacted the most, nor which triggers are most useful in determining how to trigger a creative flow state. In early 2016, we undertook a giant meta-analysis of 80 different creativity studies to determine what exactly we wanted to measure. Then, in October of 2017, we launched our study. Data is currently being compiled and reviewed, but we’re hoping to have a white paper completed by February 2018. Stay tuned….
Flow and Psychedelics: In December of 2017, in conjunction with Mendel Kalean, a neuroscientist in Robin Carhartt Harris’ lab at Imperial College, London (who you might remember from Stealing Fire, as Robin in the person currently doing the most neuro-imaging work on psychedelics), we’ve launched a comparison study between psychedelics and flow. Our goal is to examine flow triggers in relationship to set and setting (essentially pre-conditions that impact the quality of a psychedelic experience) and to compare the psychological impact of these experiences. We hope to have this paper written by early spring 2018.
Flow and Addiction: In Summer of 2018, in conjunction with researchers in Csikszentmihalyi’s lab at Drucker University, we’re beginning the long journey of trying to tease apart the complicated relationship between flow and addiction.
Flow and Business Success: In Spring 2018, in conjunction with researchers at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, we’re going to be launching a survey that drills down into flow’s impact on business success—specifically trying to determine the role flow plays in workplace performance.
Flow In Education: In conjunction with Kevin Votaw and the Pillager schools in Pillager, Minnesota, we’re embarking on a multi-year research programs with grade school students. There are four main goals to this work:
1. We’re examining the Flow Profile in conjunction with the flow triggers in an attempt to determine if certain profile types show greater susceptibility to specific triggers.
2. We’re examining the overlap between the Play Profile (designed by Stuart Brown and the Institute for Play) and the Flow Profile, looking for overlap between play style and Flow Profile designation.
3. We’re examining the relationship between mindset and flow in educational settings.
4. We’re examining the relationship between grit and flow in educational settings.
The Challenge/Skills Ratio: Researchers have suggested that a “4%” difference between challenge and skills is optimal for producing flow (see The Rise of Superman for more info). While this percentage was originally meant as a ball park figure (a guide for steering more than an actual number), ongoing work with professional and Olympic athletes has revealed it a little more accurate than originally suspected.
Thus, in a select group of research athletes, and in conjunction with FGP coach Austin Einhorn (and his team at Apiros Performance), we have begun a more formal inquiry, mapping long term athletic progress against this trigger.
The Altered States Economy: This is an ongoing attempt to calculate the amount of money people spend attempting to alter their consciousness. It was originally introduced in Stealing Fire and has since become an open-source research project—meaning your contributions are welcome. If you’d like to help move this project forward, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For a look at some of the earliest research into the state (back when it was still known as “peak experience”), check out psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Religion, Values and Peak Experiences.
- For a fantastic overview of the foundation of flow psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow is fundamental.
- For a great look at group flow, University of North Carolina psychologist KeithSawyer—who did the original research into this state—details that work and more in Group Genius.
- For a look at the role flow plays in ultimate human performance, see Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.
- For a look at how flow relates to all altered states of consciousness, see Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal’s Stealing Fire.
- For the crossover between flow and sports, see the aptly titled Flow in Sports by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Jackson.
- Neuroscientist Arne Deitrich originally proposed Transient Hypofrontality as basic mechanism for flow. He covers the topic in Introduction to Consciousness.
- As far as we can tell, the first person to explore the overlap between flow and action and adventure sports and spirituality was Rob Schultheis in his excellent (albeit, scientifically-outdated) Bone Games.
- Steven Kotler examines the overlaps between flow, action sports, spirituality and the question of where beliefs come from in West of Jesus.
- Andrew Cooper’s Playing in the Zone also examines the relationship between flow and spiritual experience.
- Interested in the flow cycle or the relationship between flow and meditation, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson did a lot of the foundational work here. Check out The Breakout Principle.
- In recent years, positive psychologists have begun drilling deeper into the relationship between creativity and flow. For a great look at this work, see Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kauffman and Carolyn Gregoire.
- Great ideas about flow and learning and chess, see Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning.
- Martin Seligman (alongside Csikszentmihalyi) has worked tirelessly and made a ton of progress advancing flow’s role in positive psychology. See Flourish and Authentic Happiness.
- For the critical overlap between flow and mindset, Mindset by Carol Dweck provides the foundational overview.
- If you’re curious about the evolution of flow, Steven Kotler takes a swing at it in A Small, Furry Prayer.
For the best look at the physiological correlates of flow, see: The Psychophysiology of Flow During Piano Playing,” Fredrik Ullen et al., Emotion, 2010, Vol. 10, No. 3, 301-311, available here.
If you’re interested in transient hypofrontality, Arne Deitrich from American University did the foundational theoretical work (which he describes in this TED Talk: click here), while Johns Hopkins’ University neurologist Charles Limb did the basic fMRI work to prove Deitrich’s hypothesis. You can see Limb’s TED talk here or read his paper here. You can also find Dietrich’s original paper here: Arne Dietrich, “Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness,” Conscious Cognition, June 12, 2003, pp. 231-256
For more information around the EEG (neuro-electricity) work being done on flow, check out Advanced Brain Monitoring’s CEO, Chris Berka, describing what they learned about expert performance and the state in her TED talk, available here.
For a good overview of brainwave activity during flow, see: Sally Adee, “Zapping the brain to get into flow,” Washington Post, February 13, 2012. Also: Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman, (New Harvest, 2013), pp. 32-41. Lastly, while this paper isn’t yet peer-reviewed, but it’s interesting in its findings: Jan Van Looy et al., “Being in the zone: Using behavioral and EEG recording for the indirect assessment of flow,” available: https://peerj.com/preprints/2482.pdf
For a great look at the neurochemistry of altered states (including flow), there’s a lot to read. A better understanding of norepinephrine and dopamine can be found in Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, (Henry Holt, 2004), For a great discussion of dopamine’s role in flow, see Gregory Burns, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment (Henry Holt and Company, 2005), pp. 146-74. For endorphins and anandamide, see: James Henry, “Possible
Involvement of Endorphins in Altered States of Consciousness: Ethos, 10: pp. 394-408. Henning Boecker et al., “The Runner’s High: Opiodergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain,” Cerebral Cortex, 2008 18 (11). Pp. 2523-2531. Also for A. Dietrich and WF McDaniel, “Endocannabinoids and exercise,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2004, Vol. 38, pp. 536-544. Also see: Etzel Cardena and Michael Winkelman, Altering Consciousness, (Prager, 2011). P. 171.
And for serotonin and oxytocin: Lars Farde, et al., “The Serotonin System and Spiritual experiences,”American Journal of Psychiatry 2003, Vol. 160, pp. 1965-1969. Umit Sayin, “Altered States of Consciousness Occurring During Expanded Sexual Response in the Human Female,” NeruoQuantology, Vol. 9, No 4, 2011. N. Goodman, “The serotonergic system and mysticism,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 2002, July-Sept. Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 263-272. Also, John Ratey and Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little Brown, 2008).