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When you feel like you can get so much done, and nobody can stop you, you might be experiencing what psychologists call "flow." But what’s actually happening to your brain when you're in that state?

Hosted by: Hank Green
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https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/rock-climber-clinging-to-a-cliff-gm527531592-92777339
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https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/human-brain-and-its-capabilities-gm492384634-76269245
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[ ♪INTRO ].

We call it being in the zone. On a roll.

In the groove. Like, when you’re writing and the world falls away and the words pour out of you. Or the way you feel when you’re running and time disappears and you just eat up mile after mile.

This delightful altered state of consciousness where things go right, you get so much done, and you feel like a freaking superhero is what psychologists call flow. But researchers are really only beginning to understand what actually goes on in our brains to make it so magical. Flow was first described in the early 1970s.

A Hungarian-American psychologist was interested in why people like artists, chess players, and rock climbers would keep engaging in extremely challenging activities without much external motivation — and sometimes, without stopping for food, water, or sleep. So he interviewed a bunch of people and uncovered the phenomenon of being totally immersed in an enjoyable activity. At first, he called this experience the autotelic state, but the word “flow” kept cropping up in the interviews.

So he defined flow as the positive, altered mental state people experience when they’re totally absorbed by an activity they enjoy. And he argued that it was the quote-unquote “Optimal State”. Flow is characterized by a few things, including intense focus and concentration on a task, enjoyment of it, and a kind of you-got-this! sense of control over it.

But other weird stuff happens, too: time warps, the task starts to feel sort of spontaneous and automatic, and you lose your usual self-awareness and self-consciousness. And all that actually translates to feeling better about yourself and performing better at whatever thing you’re doing so intensely. Flow has since been studied in all sorts of creative and physical pursuits.

It’s been studied the most in athletes, and is frequently found in the really, really good ones. But flow can also happen at work — and it’s been shown that tasks that let us tap into that creative, feel-good flow can make us like our jobs better. Flow can even help explain why we so often get lost scrolling through social media or in the bottomless pit that is a Google search.

One small study of 30 Facebook users even suggested that flow’s addictiveness could be why the social media platform is so popular. But how flow happens still isn’t well understood. Some researchers have hypothesized that it comes about because the neurons involved in attention and in experiencing rewards synchronize their rates of firing, binding them together in a way that creates the unique experience of flow.

And researchers generally agree there is a temporary reduction of activity in the frontal lobe during flow, which is called transient hypofrontality. How this happens is unclear, but it’s believed that this could lead to that reduced sense of self and lets some of those more implicit processes take over. Basically, we stop thinking so hard.

And that kind of goes well with the idea some researchers have that it only happens with tasks that should require explicit attention, but that we’re so good at that we can do implicitly. Some researchers also suggest that flow is characterized by slow waves of neural activity in the brain known as theta waves and a cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones, including dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine — which makes a lot of intuitive sense. Theta waves are also associated with drowsiness, creativity, and the hallucinations you have right before sleep.

And those hormones and neurotransmitters could explain why it’s kind of addictive and why we can sometimes forget about eating and sleeping when we’re in flow. But the evidence to support these ideas is tricky to interpret, and there’s not enough to draw really substantial conclusions about what’s happening in the brain. Partly, this is because at first, flow research focused on psychological variables.

The earliest studies were all case studies or based on self-reports, and didn’t include any direct neurological measurements. Even today, it’s challenging to create a task that puts everyone reliably into flow — and it’s only recently become easier to measure whether or not participants reach flow and what’s happening in the brain once they get there. There’s also the fact that flow often gets peddled as the “secret to happiness.” Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong.

But it does mean that people are motivated to talk about it as more powerful than it might actually be or to make sweeping statements from inconclusive and only somewhat related studies. Caveats aside, though, flow’s still pretty cool, and it’s understandable if you want to experience it more than you do now. So you might be wondering if you can get there on purpose.

Well, you can definitely try! There’s a lot of advice out there about it — which you should probably take it with a grain, or a whole jar of salt, because, self-help books are lucrative stuff. Still, if you’d like to give it a shot, you might start by employing tactics to get your internal critic out of the way.

One suggestion is to give mindfulness a go: a little meditation can help you focus on the task at hand and tune out the self. Neurofeedback training, where people are rewarded when they activate certain brain circuits so that they can learn what it feels like to use them, has also been effective in helping people learn to achieve flow. Researchers have also used hypnosis to put people in a flow state, and some people have tried using recreational drugs — which we would not recommend.

And… it may simply be that you can’t achieve flow in everything you do. One of the earliest and most consistent findings when it comes to flow is that it’s easiest to achieve during a task that has a clear goal and ongoing feedback — like when you keep getting those baskets or keep seeing words appear on the screen. And, the researcher who first described flow suggested that it required a challenging task and a high level of skill.

Someone with skills who undertook an easy task was likely to be bored, while someone without skills who undertook a challenging task was likely to experience anxiety. So the best way to get to flow might actually be to find the right task rather than the right state of mind. Set yourself up with a task with clear goals, ongoing feedback, and that Goldilocks level of difficulty — or practice the skills that will make a task that’s too daunting more doable.

And then buckle up and enjoy the ride. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you’re really in the zone to watch awesome videos about psychology, be sure to head to.

YouTube.com/SciShowPsych and check out all our episodes. I really like the one on how to conquer your fears by facing them! [ ♪OUTRO ].