Demystifying Flow: From Mythology,
to Psychology to Biology

Flow is the term used to describe optimal states of consciousness. These are peak moments of total absorption. Moments where self vanishes, time flies, and all aspects of performance are noticeably enhanced.

Don’t be worried if it’s a word you are unfamiliar with. Flow is a neologism, meaning it is a new word coined in only the last three decades. It is a term that has yet to be enfolded into mainstream language.

Although you may not have heard of Flow before - it is a feeling you’ve likely experienced. It’s that moment when you find yourself absorbed in the present. When everything else seems to disappear. When your inner critic becomes silent. When every decision, every action, every step flows seamlessly from one into the next. You feel alive and perform at your best. For some, it’s a bit like playing jazz. Others call it being in the Zone. It is catalytic, creative, powerful. And you always want more of it.

Flow has a long and colourful history. If you look back to all forms of religion, culture, science or art you will oft find it referred to in many different ways. In particular it shows up in military or monastic traditions. Avoiding death, and seeking God seemed to motivate deep contemplation of the phenomenon and cultivating these kind of peak experiences always seemed to be equated with some form of divine prompting. They were mystical, supernatural and spiritual in nature.

Then things changed...

 
 
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Abraham Maslow

Around the 1950’s, just after WW2, one of the Godfather’s of positive psychology Abraham Maslow became interested in these peak experiences as a shared commonality among all successful people. He chose to investigate further but with a very specific group of people - atheists. As it turns out atheists also experienced flow. They in fact described all the same subjective qualities of these peak experiences, but one thing was very different. They weren’t assigning them to a supernatural or divine origin.

For the first time in history the idea that the mythological state might actually be a psychological state fell into focus. Maybe these peak experiences were available to all people regardless of their belief systems?

In the 1970s, psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi embarked upon what became one of the largest psychological surveys ever, as he travelled the globe asking people about the times in their life when they felt their best and performed their best.

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Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

Everyone he spoke to, regardless of culture, class, gender, age or level of modernization, felt and performed their best when they were experiencing the state he named “Flow.” A term chosen because, flow was the word that people would use to describe the experience. Flow does actually feel flowy. But still - for its depth and breadth, Csikszentmihalyi’s study was on the subjective analysis of the experience. And asking people how they feel when they are in the zone, is a great way to knock them out of the zone. The research had its limits and Flow remained somewhat of a mystery.

In the last ten years flow research has developed exponentially. With developments in science neuroscientists have been able to conduct real time measurements across our neurobiology and cross reference the results with the extensive subjective reports collected from psychology. Finally we have made the great leap from mythology to psychology to neurobiology. And with this great leap, Flow has been demystified. It is no longer a supernatural or existential problem to solve. We are now dealing with neurobiology and neurobiology is hackable.

This means, with the right conditions in place, we can all have more Flow in our lives.

 
Clare Johnson