The study of flow states began 150 years ago with research from William James on altered consciousness. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched flow states in one of the largest global psychological studies ever; he coined the term “flow” to describe the state in which attention is so focused that everything else disappears, activity and thought feels effortless, performance is supercharged and feels, well, flowy. Before then, performance enhancement was considered a gift from the gods. Hermes could grant you speed — or the Muses, artistic expression — but mere mortals could never seek and find such abilities.
Recent advances in research are improving our understanding of the circumstances that can help one enter a flow state and achieve this kind of amplified physical, cognitive and creative experience. As a result of their Flow Research Collective, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal noticed three consistent conditions that cultivate flow.
- Rich Environment: A stimulating environment can force you to pay acute attention. By surrounding yourself with a novel, complex environment with a lot of sensory input, you can help push your body and brain to higher levels.
- High Consequences: When you take risk, you clear your mind and concentrate deeply. Whether the risk be physical, mental or emotional, it focuses you on the now…and flow follows focus.
- Deep Embodiment: This is about your physical awareness. In flow, people are feeling all their senses. Proprioceptive and the vestibular senses are highly activated and giving sensory motor inputs to the body and brain. Paying attention to multiple sensory inputs at once helps to create richer and more robust neural networks. As iLs Clinical Director, Ron Minson, M.D., has always said, “body organization leads to brain organization”.
Sound familiar? As a therapist, you aim to meet these conditions in each client session. Sensory gyms, games, tactile activities and a safe setting create an environment ripe for your clients to perform their best. We challenge our Associates and try to find the sweet spot where skill matches the task. In the clinic or the classroom, this is often referred to as a “just right challenge.” With the autonomic nervous system as your guide, you’ll recognize it when you’ve found it. Notice signals in the: eyes (bright and focused); face (content with the ability to express all emotions); voice (capable of prosody or tone changes); body (relaxed, yet with good muscle tone); and rate of movement (smooth and responsive – not too fast or slow). These are all indicators of a state of focused, relaxed and confident awareness, which is optimal for learning, growing and feeling satisfied.
In addition to the focused energy and mental acuity that can accompany it, flow can kick start an upward spiral because when you experience it, you gain confidence and are highly motivated to recreate the conditions in which it occurred. Furthermore, because of the presence of a potent combination of neurochemicals during flow, learning is strengthened — this also has a feed-forward effect. People with the most flow in life are the happiest. So it’s worth focusing on.
(And remember, flow follows focus!)
For more on the recent research on flow, access these resources:
Ted Talk with Steven Kotler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xnbUT3rOvQ
The Flow Genome Project: http://www.flowgenomeproject.com/
The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, by Steven Kotler
Stealing Fire, by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal