8
min to read
August 8, 2019

Exploring the Spectrum of Flow Research

Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. He is one of the world’s leading experts on high performance. He is the author of eight bestsellers, including Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Tomorrowland, Bold, Abundance, West of Jesus, A Small Furry Prayer and The Angle Quickest for Flight. His writing has been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired and TIME. Both A Small Furry Prayer and Stealing Fire were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Steven is also the cofounder of Creating Equilibrium, a conference/concert/innovation accelerator focused on solving critical environmental challenges, and, alongside his wife, author Joy Nicholson, Steven is the cofounder of Rancho de Chihuahua, a hospice care/special needs care dog sanctuary in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. He has a BA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA from Johns Hopkins University and, whenever possible, can be found hurling himself down mountains at high speeds.

Here at the Collective, to understand what we train and why, it helps to first grasp the full spectrum of flow research.

Flow science begins with basic, cognitive high performance. More specifically, it begins with foundational skills like motivation, grit and goal-setting. We'll go one at a time.

Since Abraham Maslow’s 1950’s work on “peak experiences” (aka., flow), the state has been considered the source code of intrinsic motivation. Nothing we’ve learned since has changed our mind—and there’s arguably been more work on this than any other aspect of flow.

And if motivation is what gets us off the couch, grit keeps us going. Here too, flow matters. The more flow produced by an incoming high school freshman’s main activity (playing football, marching band, etc.), for example, the greater chance they’ll still be involved in that activity four years later, when they graduate. The more flow, the more grit, it’s a well-established equation.

Finally, as far as goals are concerned, “clear goals” have been a known flow trigger since Csikszentmihalyi published his first book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety.  And this was in the 1970s. Yet, there’s something you won’t find in the research—but it definitely shows up in the trainings.

It turns out, flow is trainable. That’s the place you have to start—because this wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1990s, people had a tough time training flow. Starting in the 2000s, new brain imaging technology gave us a way to decode neurobiology, which allowed us to work backwards toward psychological mechanism. This is when things started to shift.

For example, using the standard flow scale as our measurement tool, our introductory flow training, Zero to Dangerous, produces an 80 percent spike in the state. Yes, afterward, this number can drop significantly, but not always, and it’s why it drops and why it doesn’t that matters most.

The people who backslide fastest are the ones with shaky foundations. To do this work well, you need to have motivation, grit and goals dialed. You need the motivation and grit for those times flow isn’t available. And even if you get good, those times are still frequent.

You need goals, meanwhile, because flow is a massive amplification in speed, and you definitely need to know where you’re going. Without this target in place, you cannot handle the acceleration, with crashing and burning being the most frequent result.

This is why our training stack starts with The Habit of Ferocity, an eight-week deep dive into motivation, grit and goals*. In our experience, the people who have this foundation in place are the people who see the most lasting benefit from the next class in our sequence: Zero to Dangerous.

Zero to Dangerous is our introduction to flow hacking. It covers exactly what you’d expect it to cover: The history of the science of peak performance, so you can have a high level understanding of the field. What positive psychology now knows about flow, which has become an amazing resource for anyone looking to train the state. The neurobiology of flow, so you understand what’s going on in the brain and the body when you’re performing at your best. Finally, flow’s 22 triggers and a thorough exploration of the flow cycle—the two most important requirements for making flow a reliable, repeatable experience, and for maximizing the high performance potential of the state.

At the upper end, sometime in 2020, we’re debuting two more trainings, one on flow and creativity, a second on flow and learning. Why? Because this is the far edge of the flow research spectrum.

Here too, let’s go one at a time

The intersection of flow and creativity is well-studied. A great many friends of the Collective have weighed in.

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the godfather of flow psychology, wrote an outstanding book on this topic. See: Creativity, 2013.
  • Columbia University psychologist and creativity expert, Scott Barry Kauffman has lectured on this idea. Search: “Neuroscience of Flow, Creativity and Openness to Experience.”
  • Drexel University neuroscientist John Kounios is completing a major fMRI study on the topic. Stay tuned…
  • Back in 2008, John Hopkins’ neurologist Charles Limb’s fMRI study on flow in jazz musicians confirmed Arne Deitrich’s  “transient hypofrontality” hypothesis.
  • Here at the Collective, in conjunction with psychologist Michael Gervais, and USC’s Performance Science Institute, we’re working through our second study on flow and creativity, with many more planned.

So yeah, we know some stuff about flow and creativity. But what we don’t yet understand is the next step: Flow and Innovation.

How do you take creative flow states and really put them to work inside an organization? The answer remains mostly unknown.

Sure, we have examples of organizations who have worked hard to implement these principles—Microsoft, Toyota, Patagonia, etc.—but hard data is scarce.

More importantly, in individuals, we can look to the biology to understand what works. But what’s the biology of an organization? The truth, every organization is different.

For this reason, when we work with companies, we try to take a more agile approach. We match strategy to culture, and experiment along the way. There’s just not yet enough data to do otherwise.

The same is true for flow and learning. While flow’s impact on learning has been a topic of considerable research, the next step up the chain—flow and education—is another black hole.

What we have instead are case studies.

A half-dozen schools have designed their curriculum around flow theory. Some got great results. Some got curious findings. In 2010, Jennifer Schmidt at the University of Northern Illinois found that minority students experience more flow than white students, while poor students experience more flow than rich students. What does this mean? We don’t know. Is it a tantalizing spot for further research? For sure.

But the point is: There’s a line here. What we know versus what we think we know.

And that’s pretty much it, the credible spectrum of flow research. Certainly, in Stealing Fire, I pushed beyond this spectrum, but that was primarily information about the science side of the equation, not the training side. This means, on the training side, if someone is trying to sell you something about biohacking and flow, or psychedelics as a flow trigger, or anything in the yoga-to-tantra spectrum and flow…. well, it might not be snake oil, but it’s definitely not (yet) well-validated science.

*One side note: I created the Habit of Ferocity in a partnership between the Flow Research Collective, a hard science-based organization, and Mindvalley, a very “spiritual” community. This raises an obvious question: If our stance is credible science, why partner with an organization that has, shall-we-say, a more open-minded approach?

Short answer: Hope for progress. Long Answer: History

In the history of the study of altered states of consciousness—including flow—a great many breakthroughs have come from partnerships between the scientific and the spiritual communities.

My mentor, neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg, teamed up with Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns to do the very first brain scans of people in the throes of ecstatic experience, he both founded the field of neurotheology and gave flow researchers their first look at why the state (occasionally) makes people feel “one-with-everything.” To learn more, check out his great book: Why God Won’t Go Away.

Meditation is another example. The whole field of altered state studies took a giant step forward when neuropsychologist Richie Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin (my alma mater, Go Badgers!), teamed up with the Dalai Lama. In fact, if you haven’t yet read his recent book, Altered Traits, about everything they’ve discovered along the way, you’re missing out on one of the new classics.

The most important point: These partnerships have blossomed most when the people on the spiritual side spoke the same language as people on the scientific side. This language was the bridge that allowed conversation to flourish and research ideas to emerge. My hope is that in working with MindValley, this will happen again. Along similar lines, this is also the reason I partnered with another spiritually-inclined organization, Sounds True, for my soon to be released audio book, Mapping Cloud Nine: Neuroscience, Flow and the Upper Possibility Space of Human Experience…stay tuned this fall.

Finally, while you can take the Habit of Ferocity via MindValley, you do so with a Mindvalley cohort—meaning a very spiritual community. We offer our own version (yes, it’s more expensive), with our own cohort groups, plus additional coaching along the way from our licensed psychologists, and a collection of extra lectures and exercises not found in the original.

Want to learn more about this or any of our trainings, email us here to schedule an interview: info@flowresearchcollective.

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