Flow – Part 2 (The Brain)

Summary: “Flow Follows Focus” 

Flow is the term coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describing a favorable state of consciousness where people feel their best and perform their best. Let’s talk a bit about why flow occurs. The human brain has a finite capacity for focusing, or paying attention to, things that are going on in your environment and life. One thing you often encounter when studying flow is that “flow follows focus.” So, what exactly does this mean?

As you get deeper and deeper into a task or activity…and then you keep pushing to go even deeper, something called transient hypofrontality is triggered in your brain. Transient, meaning it is a temporary or passing condition, frontality refers to the pre-frontal cortex (sometimes called your thinking brain), and hypo refers to the fact that things are becoming less active, or shutting down (as opposed to hyper). So, as you keep pushing to focus more, and go deeper, certain functions of your brain (functions controlled or strongly influenced by your pre-frontal cortex) begin shutting down. And in this situation, shutting down parts of your brain is a good thing and significantly enhances your productivity.

For example, your dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, best known for functioning as your inner critic, or voice of doubt, begins shutting down. Keep at it, and your superior frontal gyrus that helps produce your sense of self (so you won’t bump into other things and such) begins shutting down. Many parts of your prefrontal cortex involved in creating your sense of time, or temporal awareness, begin shutting down. In contrast to all this hypo-activity, your medial prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain that governs creative self-expression, is highly activated.

Think of this happening at the same time when you are surfing, rock-climbing, playing an instrument, in a deep conversation, or focusing on a task. Your inner critic is no longer nagging you, you become one with the wave/rock/music/conversation partner/task, you are totally “in the present moment”, and your capacity for creative self-expression, pattern recognition, and productivity skyrockets. Those are some of the main reasons that flow follows focus. 

And then…you experience a massive release of feel good, performance-enhancing, chemicals (neurotransmitters). First let me emphasize that in the case of the flow state, these chemicals are totally safe. But as a point of interest…why do they make you feel so good? That’s apparently because these endogenous (natural, internally-produced-safe) neurotransmitters have exogenous (externally-produced, such as street drugs) equivalents. Here are the natural/safe chemicals and their not-so-safe street drug equivalents: dopamine/cocaine, norepinephrine/speed, endorphins/heroin, anandamide/marijuana and serotonin/ecstasy. No wonder flow follows focus and is such a pleasure-inducing experience! Similar productivity-enhancing changes occur in terms of brain waves during the flow state.

As a practical matter, the main thing you need to remember is that flow follows focus. It’s simple, if you minimize distractions and maximize concentration/attention; you stand a good chance of inducing the flow state. The flow process is essentially the opposite of multitasking. Learning to induce flow more often is a great way to joyfully participate in life. Get focused and give it a try!

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

2 thoughts on “Flow – Part 2 (The Brain)

  1. Reply
    Murphy Terri - October 28, 2017

    Chris: An excellent and fascinating introspection on the path and power of focus. Thank you.

    1. Reply
      Chris - October 28, 2017

      Thanks Terri!

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