Flow, what is it and what exactly is the whole hoopla? I've been hearing a lot of talk about a "flow state" of heightened consciousness recently from a variety of sources and then today I came across a video featuring Travis Rice and other action-sports mega rad dudes talking about it with author Steven Kotler, who has a book coming out about it in two months and leans heavily on action-sports athletes as examples of living a life in the "flow state".
It seems like a really interesting concept, and for anyone who has felt the feeling of a full-bore powder run in the trees, catching a sweet wave or of bombing a long scary hill on a skateboard, it's not hard to grasp what these guys are talking about. If anything, it's this feeling of flow that drives many of my friends entire lives. The human mind is an amazing thing and I think many of us have encountered circumstances where time either felt like it was standing completely still or speeding by at mach speed, yet with minimal to zero effort at all you find you just completed an otherwise seemingly insurmountable task. Just this past week I found myself stuck deep in the backcountry, snowed in to a cabin that I had been skiing at for four days with friends. 26 hours of straight backbreaking work later, to manually build a road for our snowmobiles and ourselves for 22 kms, I found myself in awe at how easily we had just pulled off the hardest thing I have ever been a part of. "Easy" being a relative term of course, while it was the most physically demanding and trying thing I had ever done, as a crew once we accepted our fate we basically went into drone-mode and worked almost silently for hours on end to accomplish our task. Despite an intense lack of sleep, food and water, at the end of that insane mission I found myself not scared and shaking, rather filled with an intense feeling of "holy fuck, if we can do that we can do absolutely anything!".
On to what the experts think (don't forget to watch the awesome video featuring T Rice and others further down below):
Over the past three decades, an unlikely collection of men and women have pushed human performance farther and faster than at any other point in our 150,000-year history as a species. From big wave surf legend Laird Hamilton to big mountain snowboarding star Jeremy Jones to skateboarding pioneer Danny Way, top action and adventure sport athletes have completely redefined the limits of the possible.
“Flow naturally catapults you to a level you’re not naturally in,” explained Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ned Hallowell in an interview for the book. “Flow naturally transforms a weakling into a muscleman, a sketcher into an artist, a dancer into a ballerina, a plodder into a sprinter, an ordinary person into someone extraordinary. Everything you do, you do better in flow… Flow is the doorway to the ‘more’ most of us seek.”
Ned Hallowell, New York Times bestselling author and Harvard Medical School psychiatrist:
You may know this state by other names: runner’s high, being in the zone, being unconscious, being in the pocket, the forever box—and on and on. The lingo is endless. The experience unforgettable.
In flow, our attention is so laser-focused that all else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Times flies. Self vanishes. And all aspects of performance go through the roof.
Technically, flow is defined as a peak state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. Sensationally, flow is an accurate descriptor. In the state, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who coined the term “flow”) told Wired, “every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
Flow is a thoroughly transformational experience. A considerable pile of research shows that on the other side of the state, we’re more confident, capable and aware. Even better, as was learned from one of the largest psychological studies ever conducted, the people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on Earth.
[..] flow’s effects on performance are both very real and really astounding. In a 10-year McKinsey study, top executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you spend Monday in flow, you can actually take the rest of the week off and still get more done that your steady-state peers.
While most of us spend less than five percent of our work life in flow, if that number could be nudged up closer to 20 percent, according to that same McKinsey study, overall workplace productivity would almost double.
That’s staggering. And the learning research is more of the same. In studies run everywhere from brick-and-mortar schools to electronic learning environments (e-learning, video games, etc.), scientists have found direct and significant correlations between flow states and higher learning attitudes and outcomes.
When DARPA researchers induced flow artificially (using transcranial stimulation) they found the target acquisition skills of military snipers improved 230%. In a similar, but non-military study, researchers at Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, CA found that an artificially induced flow state cut the time it took to train novice snipers up to the expert level by 50%.
And the links between flow and enhanced creativity are even more tantalizing.
Over the past three decades, we have made enormous progress on flow. Advancements in brain imaging technologies like fMRI and EEG and consumer “quantified self” devices ranging from the Nike Fuel Band to off-the-shelf saliva-based hormone testing kits have allowed us to apply serious metrics where once was subjective experience.
And the result is that this once exceptionally elusive state of consciousness is starting to become eminently hackable.
Watch this video where action-sport athletes and artists Robbie Maddison, Jimmy Chin, Travis Rice, Dean Potter, Danny Way and Mike Horn join author Steven Kotler to go deeper into the science and neurochemistry of how flow states are triggered, and their effects on your brain.
Want to learn more about flow? There's a ton of great videos and other resources on the Flow Genome Project's website (run by author Steven Kotler) and if you have access to the December issue of Snowboard Magazine, there's an awesome article called "Inside the untracked mind" in there by Nate Deschenes that does an great job of examining this phenomenon of heightened consciousness. And we'll definitely be revisiting this topic very soon, specifically getting into how you can achieve more flow in your life.