In our attempts to understand, deconstruct, and reverse engineer flow states, it’s important that we understand what is going on in the brain while we are in – or about to enter into – flow states.
For the purposes of this article I’m going to dive into what happens in the brain while you are in flow, and what this means about how you can understand the nature of this powerful altered state of consciousness.
As a baseline we know that the “Big five” chemicals are all released in the brain, at the same time, during a flow state.
Norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins.
All five of these are performance enhancing, feel good, neurochemicals – they make you faster, stronger, and quicker – both physically and mentally – and make you feel really fucking good while doing it.
Let’s dive into these one by one.
1st up we have Dopamine – Largely known as the “happiness”, feel good, or “reward” chemical, dopamine is at the center of most positive emotions and is released after we indulge in something that brings us pleasure.
As humans we are hardwired to explore and seek out novel experiences and environments, and dopamine is largely responsible for this hardwiring. Notice how a new experience or visiting somewhere you’ve never seen before makes you feel great? Yep, that’s dopamine in action.
As a performance enhancer, dopamine also increases attention, ability to process information, and pattern recognition.
Physiologically it increases heart rate, blood pressure, and the timing of muscle firing (Remember how novel environments was an external flow trigger? This is why).
So dopamine acts on two levels – both emotionally and physiologically – it tightens focus and makes us feel really good while doing it.
Next up we have Norepinephrine, which plays a similar role to dopamine in the experience of flow.
In the body It speeds up heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration – which all help as huge performance enhancers. It also releases glucose into the blood stream so we have more energy.
In the brain, norepinephrine increases arousal, attention, efficiency of neural networks, and emotional control.
What does this mean for flow states? Norepinephrine keeps us locked on target, holding distractions at bay.
“As a pleasure-inducer, if dopamine’s drug analog is cocaine, norepinephrine’s is speed, which means this enhancement comes with a hell of a high.” – Steven Kotler
People in flow states often report that they feel a “heightened sense of awareness”, they can see more, feel more, smell more, and process more of our surroundings with less conscious effort.
What is responsible for this?
Norepinephrine and Dopamine. The two work hand in hand to make you more concentrated while flooding your body with feel good sensations that reward you for your enhanced focus and concentration.
The third musketeer in the flow friends combination? Endorphins!
What do endorphins do? Put simply, they are endogenous (your body naturally produces it) pain killers and pleasure producers. They mediate the effects of stress and pain in the body and reduce how intense the experience of pain or discomfort is.
It’s like natural heroine – tension in the body disappears and you feel intense pleasure. For context, the most commonly produced endorphin is 100x more powerful than morphine.
In flow states this means that, quite simply, pain, tension, and stress in the body disappear and are replaced with pleasure instead.
Remember how flow is effortless? A large reason why this is the case is because of endorphins that change the way your body reacts to pain. It’s why athletes can play through a serious injury or not notice it altogether.
Next up, my favorite in the cocktail of flow – Anandamide.
If you’ve ever been high from smoking Marijuana, you’ve felt the amazing effects of Anandamide.
Anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word “ananda” which means “bliss”. It’s a neurotransmitter that operates off of the cannabinoid system of the brain.
Physiologically it runs through very similar pathways to that of Marijuana, which is why it has such similar effects.
This chemical elevates mood, reduces pain, dilates blood vessels and bronchial tubes (aiding respiration), and improves lateral thinking (our ability to link disconnected ideas together).
Most importantly, it also inhibits fear, making it easier for us to take risks or try things we normally wouldn’t try.
Again we have a chemical that makes us feel good, reduces pain, activates parts of the body that improve athletic performance, helps us to be more creative, and kicks fear out the window enabling us to feel comfortable (or even excited) at the prospect of risk taking.
Lastly in the mix we have our fifth friend, Serotonin. While not directly involved in the experience of flow, it is believed to (more research needed), show up at the tail end of flow and is what gives us the feeling of peace and tranquility after we have experienced a flow state.
Serotonin is important because it’s another chemical that regulates mood. Low serotonin levels for example is linked to depression. Most anti-depressant medications (SSRI’s), hijack the serotonin system of the brain.
So let’s review – A flow state is like taking cocaine, speed, heroine, marijuana, and anti-depressants all at the same time!!!
In more scientific terms, Norepinephrine hones focus (data acquisition); dopamine improves pattern recognition (data processing); anandamide accelerates lateral thinking (widens the database searched by the pattern recognition system), and endorphins help to modulate stress levels and keep you calm along the way. ALL of these also feel amazing on top of it.
Just to drive this point home – Flow is the only time the brain produces all 5 of these neurochemicals at the same time!
As you can see, flow is a VERY powerful cocktail of all the best performance enhancing and feel good chemicals the brain has to offer. It allows us to perform at our best and feel our best while doing it.
Understanding the neurochemistry of what is going on in the brain, and what we can do to release these chemicals, gives us the unique opportunity to reverse engineer a flow state.
We know that novel experiences releases dopamine, we know that exercise can release anandamide and endorphins, and we know that excitement/risk can trigger norepinephrine – all of these are flow triggers. Stack the right triggers together and you’re on your way to flow.
However – trying to play with these chemicals is very risky business.
Flow is a VERY powerful neuro-chemical cocktail of all the most powerful feel good chemicals in the brain all hitting you at the same time – all of the most ADDICTIVE feel good chemicals all at once.
Flow is perhaps the most addictive state that we can experience. It’s why you see so many extreme sports athletes who push the boundaries too far and die. As they continue to push the bar of flow to new heights, it becomes harder to get there, which means it’s harder to get their fix. The stakes get higher as you continue to chase flow states.
You are hijacking reward and motivation systems of the brain. You can mess with creativity and cognitive function. Play with fire recklessly and you might get burned.
Be safe in your explorations of flow. Don’t allow it to become your master. Be weary of the addictive aspects of flow and if it is putting you in a risky situation. Always flow safely 🙂
Now – while this is easy to understand in theory, things become much trickier when trying to implement and integrate. Want to learn how to implement these principles sustainable, smart way? Join my Free Course Foundations of Flow. In it I teach you all of the methods to get into flow on command.
Be safe in your implementation and happy flowing!!!
Also published on Medium.