What Is Flow State and How Does It Affect You?

Have you ever heard of a term called “flow state”? It means more or less exactly what it sounds like: a fancy way to say one is “in the zone.” But while being “in the zone” is a colloquial term that can make stories of people being locked into a moment or a task sound more like exaggerations than reality, flow state is actually backed by science as a true heightened state of consciousness that allows an individual to achieve optimal performance.

The author Steven Kotler dove deep into his fascination with flow state in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, studying flow state in extreme sports athletes often facing life-threatening situations. And life-threatening situations are exactly what one would expect a heightened sense of awareness is needed for, assuming the menial day-to-day tasks or even a game of chess would never call upon the superpowers provided by flow state.

But one would be wrong.

The Flow Genome Project actually describes that individuals in flow experience heightened creativity, increased performance, and accelerated problem-solving, meaning flow isn’t just something an athlete falls into when they need to escape a gruesome tumble or when they find themselves in the middle of a runner’s high. Flow, once an individual learns how to find and enter it, can help us even at home or in the office, maximizing productivity and helping the average Joe concentrate on important tasks.

Neuroscientists in Germany first found that flow state happens when a cocktail of endorphins are released into the body. Specifically, neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin work together at the same time to relax muscles, increase focus, help us solve problems, and overall, make us feel good. Neuroscientist Arne Dietrich theorized that a temporary inactivation of the prefrontal cortex sparks a new awareness of time (everything slows down), along with a “loss of your ego-based self-consciousness and inner-critic.” All these things work together to make that magical cocktail of what feel like superpowers.

“The more neurochemicals [you experience] during a [flow state], the better chance that experience moves from short-term to long-term [memory],” says Executive Director of Flow Genome Project, Jamie Wheal. “The neurochemical firing you experience during flow state cements [details in your brain] automatically… For example, studies run by the U.S. military and Advanced Brain Monitoring figured out that snipers in flow learn 200% to 500% faster than normal.”

Kotler even explains that flow state can inhibit fears that would typically slow us down or prevent us from performing a task. “Your brain cannot tell the difference between social fear and physical fear. They’re processed by the exact same structures in the brain,” he says.

So how does one find flow state? Meditation, heart rate variability training, and sensory deprivation are all methods found to fast-track people into flow state temporarily. Each is a practice that requires just that; practice. So for anybody looking for a boost through the day-to-day or even an overall performance edge in any number of tasks, researching these methods and practicing them in an attempt to get to flow state can better equip you to find flow on a regular basis.