If you follow along in the larger Troy Story, you’ll know that my passion over the last few years has been the exploration of Flow States. That feeling of being “in the zone”, and understanding the science of what is going on in the brain and body when you experience that state.
In previous posts I have covered some topics like the neuroscience of flow, how to identify what your flow triggers are, how I apply them into my work, and more, so I won’t go into too much detail on flow education here, but here’s a quick baseline education of flow science.
- Neurochemically you see the big five of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins.
- Neuroanatomically we see something called “transient hypofrontality”, which is the slowing down of the pre-frontal cortex – the part of your brain that controls your inner voice and sense of time.
- Neuro-electrically we see the slowing of brain wave frequencies – we go from short rapid beta waves into calmer smoother longer alpha and theta waves.
- Physiologically we see improved heart rate variability (the nervous system calms down), and deeper breathing.
The fun part and the purpose of today’s article? Drugs can produce similar changes in the brain and body 😉
For example coffee is a release of dopamine and norepinephrine and ramps up the nervous system. Anti-depressants work off the serotonin system of the brain. Pain killers use the endorphin and pain management systems.
Dugs and flow triggers have A LOT in common. At the end of the day these chemicals are at the root of all habits, behaviours and addictions.
However, by understanding the drugs that you like/reach for, you can gain an understanding of the flow triggers and activities you can be using to drive yourself into flow NATURALLY, without the use of drugs.
Steven Kotler always talks about “getting your biology to work for you, rather than against you”, and we can use flow triggers as a natural way to biologically produce the same affects that drugs do – but in a healthier and more sustainable way.
So let’s dive in and run this exploration 🙂
To start off with, here is a rough breakdown of the various flow triggers and the effects that they produce in the brain…
- Curiosity/Passion/Purpose – Dopamine/reducing cognitive load
- Autonomy – Dopamine/reducing cognitive load
- Complete Concentration – Reducing cognitive load/drives dopamine as goals are achieved/transient hypofrontality/slower brain wave frequencies
- Risk – Norepinephrine
- Novelty – Dopamine
- Complexity – Dopamine
- Unpredictability aka surprise – Dopamine
- Deep Embodiment – Reducing cognitive load/Transient hypofrontality
- Immediate Feedback – Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
- Clear Goals – Reducing cognitive load
- Challenge/Skill Ratio – Reducing cognitive load/dopamine/norepinephrine depending on feedback
- Creativity/Pattern Recognition – Dopamine
Now for comparison, let’s look at an over-simplified version of your brain on drugs.
- Coffee = Caffeine = Dopamine + Norepinephrine. Up-regulates the nervous system
- Tobacco = Dopamine + Norepinephrine. Up-regulates the nervous system.
- Alcohol = Dopamine + Transient Hypofrontality. Calms down the nervous system
- CBD/Marijuana = Anandamide
- Cocaine = Dopamine. Stimulant that up-regulates the nervous system
- Speed = Methamphetamine = Aderall/Ritalin = Norepinephrine. Up-regulates the nervous system
- Antidepressants = Serotonin. Calms down the nervous system
- Antianxiety/Benzo’s = Xanax/Vivanz – Increase GABA. Calms down the nervous system
- Painkillers aka Opiods aka Heroine = Endorphins. Calms down the nervous system
- MDMA aka Ecstasy = Serotonin. Up-regulates the nervous system.
- On the note of psychedelics, the research isn’t conclusive quite yet, but from the preliminary research you see some interesting patterns emerge. For one, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT all seem to induce transient hypofrontality and slowed brain wave frequencies. The neurochemical effects aren’t as well understood. Psychedelics are interesting because, while strikingly different from a full blown flow state, do produce neurological and physiological effects that look very similar. They seem to keep your brain in a sustained state of transient hypofrontality and slower brain wave frequencies which could normally not be maintained with that intensity for that duration.
So what does this mean? Let’s take inventory here. What type of drugs do you normally gravitate to? What is the effect you are hoping to get? And what does that mean in terms of how it connects to your flow triggers?
Let’s connect the dots.
You are looking for something that will wake up your system and drive dopamine and norepinephrine. The flow trigger equivalent of this would be triggers like novelty/unpredictability/complexity (dopamine) and then risk(norephinephrine). These are triggers that keep you in new situations thinking on your feet, and equally drive the same neurochemicals.
Nicotine triggers a short rapid blast of dopamine and norepinephrine. Similar to caffeine but shorter lived with more norepinephrine. This means the dopamine rich triggers of novelty, complexity, unpredictability, creativity and the norepinephrine of risk.
Usually the people who I see that like tobacco are people who like risk. I hypothesize that it could be a way of creating the slight sensation of risk when there is boredom or disengagement in life. Needing a little more excitement, more stimulation.
Also people who have normalized a highly anxious state of living. I suspect that there is a close correlation between anxiety and smoking.
I’ll also add that you will often notice though that smoking a cigarette is usually a “release” of some kind. It’s used to take a break, take a pause. That means that rather than using flow triggers here, we’re actually looking for a release a la the four stages of the flow cycle struggle>release>flow>recovery.
Here I’d actually recommend other release activities such as breathing techniques, meditation, journaling, exercise. When you feel the desire to smoke, you can replace it with a task switch of some kind. Walk away from what you were doing and do something else.
This is dopamine which means similarly you probably like novelty, unpredictability, complexity and creativity. It’s why you see so many artists who are alcoholics. Art is full of novelty and creativity.
Some loose flimsy science also says that 1.5 drinks is the sweet spot for using alcohol to improve creativity, but that’s not quite verified and I think mostly comes from anecdotal evidence.
Alcohol also induces transient hypofrontality and calms down the nervous system. This is why you see decreased inhibitions and risk taking when you’re drunk. This would mean practices like deep embodiment aka physical exercise, yoga, balance, long walks, etc will help as flow triggers.
Marijuana is the neurochemical anandamide, and turns out that the “runners high” feeling is a combination of endorphins and anandamide. Similar effects here.
Smoking pot also helps with lateral thinking and creativity, which means dopamine as well. This is again things like novelty surprise are things you will thrive with. Again this is why so many creatives and artists love weed, tons of novelty and pattern recognition.
There are also some foods that release anandamide but food isn’t a flow trigger so take that with a grain of salt haha.
HUGE dose of dopamine which means you love the novelty, complexity, unpredictability, and surprise. Interestingly enough, novelty and complexity stacked together can cause up to a 400% increase in dopamine, which is almost equivalent of cocaine! (it was actually this video that inspired this entire post).
Speed aka Aderall aka Ritalin –
Norepinephrine, which means more risk as a flow trigger.
I also like to look at this one in the context of the challenge skills balance. You often see that speed works well for boring, repetitive, monotonous tasks. This means that that the challenge isn’t great enough so we cant get sufficiently interested. With speed you’re pumping the risk chemical into your body. Your body thinks there is a constant subtle threat, so it creates sufficient arousal in the body needed to be able to sustain focus. This is why so many finance and data geeks love aderall and Ritalin – Lots of numbers, big deals on the line, routinised schedules and days that are packed with lots of meetings – norepinephrine all day. They need to be constantly stimulated and “on” which is exactly what norepinephrine helps you to do.
This means you like the mood enhancing effects of serotonin and the calm feeling it gives to your nervous system. Happy but calm.
It’s important to note here that serotonin is really showing up at the tail end of a flow state. This means that it’s the feeling you get AFTER you have been in a flow state that makes you feel really peaceful and calm and happy. The feeling of accomplishment as well. The relief that comes from putting in the work successfully.
If we want the serotonin from anti-depressants that means we are looking for the feeling of accomplishment, the feeling we get after flow. This means that this person would work well with long term goals and curiosity/passion/purpose. High hard goals of where they are going to, and then clear goals of day to day progress to keep motivation consistent.
As you seek a goal you release dopamine which then motivates you to want to keep going and seek that reward again. Serotonin will then show up on the tail end as the person consistently achieves those goals and begins to improve their mood over time from that sense of accomplishment. Clear goals and steady progress are the way forward for this bunch.
This is like the downside of the people who like too much caffeine/speed/uppers in general. They need to calm the nervous system down. They need GABA.
This one is really simple – INTENSE exercise releases GABA. If you are anxious as hell or in general like the effects of Xanax, intense exercise can give you the same feelings.
Endorphin system of the body. Best way to get endorphins into the system is through exercise. Getting into the body.
However, people who like painkillers don’t want to ramp their nervous system up, they want to chill and mellow out. In that case slower exercises and embodiment practices could work well. Long walks. Vipassana body scans. Slow yoga. Slow deep breathing.
I will also add here that instead of flow triggers, these people would actually thrive with active recovery techniques like the sauna and cold plunge. The feeling that comes from painkillers is more of the feeling of relaxation we are looking for at the end of the flow cycle, the feeling that comes after flow. The recovery stage. If you like painkillers, rather than recommending most of the flow triggers, I’d actually recommend more time in recovery and relaxation.
Serotonin. This is similar to anti-depressants in the sense that the desired result here is that sense of peace and well being. However with MDMA we want to get the nervous system going. This means that the MDMA crowd would potentially be more receptive to clear goals and curiosity passion and purpose than the anti-depressant crowd, because they like the excitement and novelty, they are more reward driven.
I’ll also add from personal experience that the felt experience of MDMA is VERY embodied. Feelings are more sensitive. A single touch can send ripples through the body. Incredibly relaxing.
For this reason, again the deep embodiment practices and active recovery techniques will work well with these people as flow triggers. Movement as well. I’ve never seen someone take MDMA that didn’t want to get up and move around in strange ways 😉
Then last but not least…psychedelics!
(Science still not entirely conclusive) – Psychedelics induce transient hypofrontality and slower brain waves in a sustained state. The best activity that replicates this? Meditation!
Extended meditation can calm down brain waves and calms down the default mode network of the mind. Long walks can induce transient hypofrontality. Holotropic breath work can apparently do create some crazy altered states.
But all in all, on this one, I will be honest – there is no substitute for psychedelics. The general reality is that if you like psychedelics you probably like flow states because everything is very flowy when you’re tripping. If that’s the case, doing things the natural way is really the only way to get back to the actual state of flow. Put in the work my friend.
Whew! And that’s all of the drugs in action my friends!
Now if we put all of this together, what most of the world does on a Saturday night makes a lot more sense. People are mixing different substances together to produce an altered state of consciousness that is pretty similar to flow. We’ve all had that experience where you have the perfect quantity of alcohol to weed to some smokes and maybe even a few drugs in there and BAM! You feel like you’re on top of the world. If you combine all these drugs together in the right way you get pretty damn close to flow (but with a much much worse hangover the next day). Now when I look at a bar full of people I just think to myself, “everyone is just chasing the elusive flow state!”
Jokes aside, this is an exercise that helps us to get introspective. Ask ourselves about the common substances that we reach for, and understanding the why behind it. The neurochemicals and physiological reactions that drive the end result of the feeling or performance boost that you are looking for.
Do you consistently reach for the dopamine rich stimulant based uppers? Do you love the risk and complexity and steer more towards the norepinephrine? Are you trying to calm yourself down or speed yourself up?
By understanding these drugs and what they do in the body, you can now search for natural means to create the same end desired result. You can implement flow triggers in a new way based on what you have learned here. Change the way you work and get better results without needing the drugs to do it.
Keep in mind as well that while it’s great to know your flow triggers and use them for elevated performance, this exercise will equally point you in the direction of the red flags. The danger zones. The areas where you are likely to over-indulge and create problems for yourself.
These are the same chemicals that underpin all addictions. Flow is a highly addictive state. All of these substances we mentioned above are highly addictive. At the root of this conversation, we’re playing with addiction.
Flow triggers can backfire. These triggers control the weapon which is the neurochemical or physiological reaction. When you pull that trigger it fires a weapon. A weapon that can be used for good or for bad.
Too much dopamine equals schizophrenia. Too much norepinephrine with a nervous system that never calms down properly will cause some serious health issues. Too much novelty (dopamine) leads to inconsistency and impulsive decision making. Too much risk (norepinephrine) can get you killed or do something stupid. Too much complexity could mean overcomplicating and cognitive load that is consistently through the roof.
The source of high performance can also be the same source of addiction. It’s why you see so many extreme sports athletes who also struggle with addiction of varying forms. The thrill seeking activities are actually what are causing them the most damage to their lives, whether that is getting hurt doing something stupid, or not being able to handle the lows when they cant get their drugs. When you’re playing with fire you can get burned, be smart and intelligent about the process.
We often also use substances to cover up where we might need more recovery, time off. We’re tired so we reach for more energy instead of more rest and recovery. Learning how to be mindful of the substances you reach for, WHEN you reach for them, and what type of feeling that you are looking for or avoiding, can teach you a lot about the stage of the flow cycle you are trying to cut through and leapfrog over. Drugs can keep us in a perpetual state of struggle, as we never learn how to properly release which means we can’t get into flow and we spend all day chasing it and then never properly recover. Don’t fall into this trap.
On the bright side, I think that this also presents us with a very positive approach of using flow to combat addiction. If you struggle with addiction of ANY of these substances, you can substitute flow for it instead. You can learn about the flow triggers that will help you and then connect those triggers to flow activities rich in those same triggers. You can then dive in and learn those activities that can give you flow so that you don’t need the drugs.
I’m not saying that this will be an easy process, nor is it as over-simplified as I’ve laid out here (addiction is a sign of other underlying personality disorders that want to be addressed, and addiction is incredibly complicated), but it’s a potential process and set of techniques nonetheless. A healthy one that involves goal setting and creating positive sustainable habits that will put the person on the right path, and still allow them to get high off of flow!
As a side note – I think that a very powerful and encouraging idea to someone struggling with addiction is “I’m going to get you high on flow!” When faced with the prospect of going cold turkey, of dropping their drug of choice entirely, the idea of sustained sobriety sets in. That now, from here on out, any form of an altered state is off limits. This default mode is now what I have to live with. And let’s be honest – that’s a shitty thought to have! To never be able to get out of your baseline state of mind other than through exercise or meditation? That sucks!
With flow we give them a new drug. One that is like taking all of these drugs combined at the same time. We give them the hope that they can get high again. But flow is a drug that requires work. While it can happen accidentally, it’s difficult to reproduce. If we want to reproduce with consistency, it takes work. This then means that with addicts we give them a drug that they have to work at in order to receive – this is delayed gratification, which is EXACTLY what you want to train with an addict 🙂
As I write this I think of Jesse Pinkman on Breaking bad. He was addicted to methamphetamine. Norepinephrine. What was his flow activity? Wood carving. Requires intense concentration. Nuance and subtlety. Very detailed. Repetitive. All fall in line with what meth helps with – intense focus over a long period of time while handling complexity. Now that I think back to that scene, it’s a truly profound example of how to use flow to combat addiction!
Ok ok ok I’ve deviated a bit off tangent, but I hope that you enjoy and get the larger over arching message here. Overall, this is meant to be a lighthearted fun exploration of how flow triggers and drugs have a lot in common.
I hope that this was helpful for you. I encourage you to go through this exercise. Take inventory of the drugs that you reach for and enjoy. Examine the flow triggers that are present and what feeling you are hoping to achieve from them. Ask yourself if you have sufficient flow activities in your life that can produce these effects. See where you can implement them into your existing work. Then like any good scientist, implement them and measure your results. Come back to me with what you find 🙂
Off to the races my friends, let’s go get high!
**Flow Triggers are MUCH more complicated, nuanced, and complex than how I lay out here. The cascading effect of drugs is equally complex, and while neurochemicals are a part of the process, many other systems are at work. This post is meant to be insightful and fun, rather than taken literally and as exact science. It’s intended to open up a discussion and exploration and open to more science that can help support this geeky rabbit hole🙂 ***