The History of Flow Science from Nietzsche to Neurons

The History of Flow Science from Nietzsche to Neurons

The History of Flow Science from Nietzsche to Neurons

When we’re in flow, we feel our best and perform our best. The flow state is an optimal state of consciousness. 

Flow is characterized by: 

  1. Moments of rapt attention and total absorption. 
  2. Intense focus. 
  3. Amazing concentration. 
  4. A merging of actions and awareness.
  5. The dilation of time (slowing down or speeding up). 
  6. The disappearing of self (especially the inner critic). 

Wherever you see the impossible becoming possible, flow is involved. 

What does it look like in action? 

Alex Honnold free soloing half dome in an hour and 22 minutes. 

Surfers riding monster waves with the weight of 1,000 Volkswagen Beetles dropping down on them. 

Danny Way jumping China’s Great Wall

Flow isn’t just for extreme athletes. 

We’ve worked with creative teams at Google who are inventing the latest advancements in AI. 

And leaders like Peter Diamandis who are making incredible strides in solving global challenges. 

Imagine yourself experiencing up to a 500% increase in productivity. You could spend Monday in flow and still get more done than your peers would in a week! 

That’s why we research the neuroscience of flow states and train individuals to harness the power of flow.  Flow empowers anyone to achieve more, faster.

Where did flow science begin? It’s a fascinating journey from saints to skateboarders; from psychedelic trips to scientific discoveries. 

Nietzsche’s Intoxicating "Rausch" 

Nietzsche was the first major Post-Darwinian philosopher. 

He believed that as our bodies evolved, our brains did too. He didn’t think we could know everything about the mind. He wanted to replace the primitive struggle to survive with the “Will to Power.” A trait that he saw as not only motivation, but part of our biology.  

Nietzsche saw the Will to Power as this irrational, unconscious force, “We ourselves are a kind of chaos,” he said in “Beyond Good and Evil.” 

Nietzsche recognized in humans a desire for dominance and mastery. This drive could be destructive and crude, but also subtle and beautiful. When fueled by passion and purpose, the Will to Power could be transformed into a will to create or a will to find truth. 

He praised what he called the “sublimation” of the Will to Power into creative activity. 

In other words, find your passion and purpose. Live the questions. Creatively attack them. “Art reminds us of states of animal vigor...an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it,” Nietzsche says in “The Will to Power.” 

When the Will to Power gets harnessed, it becomes “self-overcoming.” 

It leads towards self-transformation. When this happens, humans experience what Nietzsche called “Rausch.” He defined this as “the great stimulus to life.”

Rausch is one of the most powerful experiences possible for human beings. 

It has several markers. 

  1. Individual and even group ecstatic experiences. 
  2. The vanishing of self. 
  3. Heightened physical ability. 
  4. Instinctive understanding. 
  5. Intense, compulsive activity. 

We now know that Rausch equals flow. 

Though Rausch was sometimes associated with awful abuses of power in its day, flow is ethically neutral. 

It’s about becoming better than you are. If you have passion, purpose and grit—flow is your path to high performance. 

Near Death

In 1871 a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim set out to climb the Santis—the 12th-highest peak in Switzerland. On the ascent, Heim led his party through a steep snowfield. The group argued about what to do as a whiteout trapped them between a rocky ledge. 

A gust of wind took Heim’s hat. He reached for it and tumbled. His body fell sideways and flipped upside down before sliding over the lip of a cliff. Heim fell more than 60 feet.  

It wasn’t just Heim’s body that fell. His mind dropped into another dimension. 

His of time turned to slow motion. He realized that he felt no pain or anxiety.  He experienced heightened senses. His vision expanded. His thoughts remained clear and coherent. "What I felt in five to ten seconds could not be described in ten times that length of time," Heim wrote in “Remarks on Fatal Fall,” first published in 1892.

While airborne, Heim saw the terrified expressions of his brother and friends above. He considered taking off his glasses—in case they shattered. He imagined calling out to his climbing companions, if he survived the fall. 

He was scheduled to give his first university lecture five days later. He wondered if he’d be able to speak if he survived. Next, he imagined how news of his death would affect his loved ones. 

All of this happening as he tumbled through the air. 

Then I saw my whole past life take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance,” he wrote. 

Everything around Heim became full of light. The mountain appeared harmonious and beautiful. He noticed the blue sky full of rose and violet clouds. Music seemed to be coming from deep inside his chest. 

I saw that now I was falling freely through the air and that under me a snow field lay waiting. Objective observations, thoughts, and subjective feelings were simultaneous...Then I heard a dull thud and my fall was over," he wrote in “Remarks.” 

Heim had lived an entire lifetime in the span of one death-defying fall.

The impact had knocked him out. He was unconscious for half an hour. His companions carried him down to the nearest alpine hut. 

Heim gave his inaugural lecture at Oxford University a week later as planned.

He wondered if the mental activity and intensity he had experienced was common during near death experiences. 

Heim interviewed thirty-two other near-death fall survivors. Two years later, he presented his findings to the Swiss Alpine Club's Uto Section in Zurich. 95% of the subjects he studied experienced a similar state during accidental falls. 

Even subjects who weren’t in danger, but who thought they were going to die, still experienced this altered state. Heim had created a record of a mystical experience triggered by perception and psychology.  

Mystical Experiences

Heim had fallen off a mountain into a door of perception. HIs experience fascinated Harvard professor William James. 

James was the most famous psychologist in the world at the turn of the 20th century. 

In 1902, he published his collection of lectures on mystical experiences. James  discovered that no matter what religious background people had, a mystical experience could radically change them. His subjects were happier and more content. Some even enjoyed amplified mental and physical performances. 

Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being,” James wrote. He compared normal waking consciousness to a person with a whole body only using their little finger. 

James set out to prove that mystical experiences were psychologically real.  He believed they could trigger higher forms of consciousness. 

James recognized that certain drugs and spiritual practices could get someone there. However, it seemed the best trigger was risk. In a nod to Heim, James said, “great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are then we supposed.” 

Fight or Flight

Walter Bradford Cannon was one of James’ students. Around 1916, he made a profound discovery. 

Cannon studied the physiological changes produced by powerful emotions. 

You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response. It was Cannon who discovered it. Before this breakthrough, high performance was seen as a spiritual gift. Cannon showed it was a byproduct of our biology. 

This realization inspired hundreds of athletes, scientists, and flow seekers to play a role in helping humanity understand ultimate performance. 

Heim, James, and Cannon are covered in chapter one of Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman (2014).

Peak Experiences

A few years after James’ work with mystical experiences, Freud’s theory of the unconscious dominated psychology. 

Freud’s theories were challenged by Behaviorism, a theory created by B.F. Skinner. Behaviorism focused on actions and their consequences. Skinner and his peers believed behavior boiled down to extrinsic motivation. 

We do X to get Y

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist wasn’t convinced.  

He believed there was more to human behavior. 

While many psychologists of his day focused on people with disorders, Maslow was interested in learning the secrets of successful people. 

He wondered if common traits were shared by people like Albert Einstein and Frederick Douglass.

Maslow observed that top performers had bursts of intense focus during activity. He believed this deep focus shifted their consciousness. 

"Rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter," is how he explained what he called “peak experiences.” 

The self-actualized had more peak experiences than other people. They were also willing to pursue them. Einstein used to sail into the middle of Lake Geneva and stare at the Cosmos.

Maslow concluded that high achievers were intrinsically motivated. As their internal drive made them test their limits, the intense focus that came with it was its own reward. 

Unlike James’ subjects, the people Maslow studied weren’t religious. They were all atheists. “During a peak experience, the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life,” Maslow said.

He showed anyone was capable of having “peak experiences.” 

Saint and shamans weren’t the only ones with access to another dimension. And it didn’t take years of devout practice to achieve.

Maslow explained that a person’s peak experience could be triggered by standing on top of a mountain, or being taken over by music

Peak experiences shared these characteristics, according to Maslow:

  1. Loss of judgment to time and space. 
  2. The feeling of being one whole and harmonious self, free of inner conflict. 
  3. The feeling of using all capacities and capabilities at their highest potential.
  4. Functioning effortlessly and easily without strain or struggle. 
  5. Use of self-determination to become stronger and more single-minded.
  6. Being without inhibition, fear, doubt, and self-criticism.
  7. Spontaneity, expressiveness, and naturally flowing behavior that is not constrained by conformity.
  8. A free mind that is flexible and open to creative thoughts and ideas.
  9. Complete mindfulness of the present moment without influence of past or expected future experiences. 
  10. A physical feeling of warmth, along with a sensation of pleasant vibrations emanating from the heart area outward into the limbs.

By learning the secrets of high achievers, had Maslow uncovered the source code of intrinsic motivation?  

Enter Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Pronounced “Me-high, Chick-sent-me-high” this psychologist made a name for himself a few years after Maslow. 

Csikszentmihalyi was interested in learning what motivated the average person. He asked all types of people, “What activities produce your deepest enjoyment and greatest satisfaction?

His subjects, which came from all walks of life and socioeconomic levels, all told him the same thing. They felt their best when they were in optimal states that many of them described as “flow.” 

Csikszentmihalyi identified 8 flow characteristics

  1. Complete concentration on the present. 
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback.
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down).
  4. The experience itself is intrinsically rewarding.
  5. Effortlessness and ease.
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills. (Tasks aren’t too hard or too easy.)
  7. Actions and awareness are merged. (Self-consciousness disappears.) 
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

Peak experiences became further democratized. They were now recognized as flow states. 

The Neurochemicals of Flow 

As advancements in science are made, we are able to witness the huge impact of Neurochemistry on performance. 

There are six potent neurochemicals that amp up performance, improve cognition, decrease pain, and increase strength. 

They are: 

  1. Norepinephrine
  2. Dopamine
  3. Endorphins
  4. Anandamide
  5. Serotonin 
  6. Oxytocin (to a lesser extent)

When these chemicals are released during flow, they are up to 100 times more potent than any pill you could take. 

That’s why flow is considered the most addictive state on earth. 

Norepinephrine and dopamine heighten your senses and tighten focus. They also lower the signal to noise ratio, so pattern recognition improves. Your ability to link ideas is enhanced. 

Anandamide promotes lateral thinking. It helps link very disparate ideas together. 

Another job of neurochemicals is to tag experiences. The more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance those memories have of moving from short term storage into long-term holding.

This helps explain why flow is so great for accelerated learning. 

Researchers at Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, CA found that an artificially induced flow state cut the time it took to train novice snipers up to the expert level by 50%. 

When “feel good” chemicals get released during flow state, motivation, learning, and creativity all get a massive boost. Collectively these three are known as the high performance triangle. 

Plus, your brain knows how to dose these pleasure chemicals perfectly. 

For a deeper dive into the neurochemistry behind flow, check out Mapping Cloud 9.


A Psychedelic Detour 

Dogs lick psychedelic toads. Birds munch on marijuana seeds. Goats gobble down magic mushrooms. It turns out animals are getting high.

Like sex, hunger, and thirst, the urge to pursue intoxication, “can never be repressed. It is biologically inevitable,” says UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel. 

Why are we hardwired to seek drugs that will shift our consciousness? 

Psychologist Edward de Bono says drugs promote “lateral thinking.” Also called, “thinking outside of the box.” 

Depatterning, or removing normal thinking patterns or behavior, can have long-term benefits. 

William James (remember him) experimented with nitrous oxide to bring on ecstasis. 

In the 1950s, the CIA wanted to know if LSD could make Soviet spies defect against their will. 

They bought enough acid to dose half the US and embarked on some reckless experiments. They secretly dosed housewives, students, and soldiers. If you worked at the CIA back then, it wasn’t unusual to find an acid trip inside your morning coffee as a government office prank! 

After being a test subject in the CIA’s MK Ultra program, Ken Kesey stole acid from the VA Hospital to conduct his own experiments on Stanford’s campus. 

It didn’t take long for him to move the culture to Palo Alto and invite the Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Grateful Dead to play along. Kesey and his “Merry Band of Pranksters” to help usher in California’s psychedelic movement. 

Hippies shouldn’t distract from the fact that Psychedelics have shown promise as real therapy. 

Humphrey Osmond was an English psychiatrist who gave mescaline to Aldous Huxley and coined the term “psychedelic” for his studies. When Osmond treated 2,000 alcoholics with LSD between 1954-1960 he witnessed a 45% sobriety rate. Today’s therapeutic efforts can only claim a top success rate of 30%—and that only counts addicts who don’t drop out of the program.

There is also research to support the use of psychedelics in creative problem-solving. 

The last psychedelic study to take place before LSD became illegal was in 1966. 

In the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California, twenty-seven male subjects from a variety of professions gathered. Sixteen were engineers. There was also a physicist, two mathematicians, two architects, a psychologist, a furniture designer, an artist and two managers. 

Each participant brought a professional problem they had been struggling to solve for at least three months. 

The team of scientists who led the experiment structured the sessions and prepared the setting in a way that would maximize improved functioning. The men discussed their problems with each other beforehand and took an hour-long cognitive test. 

Some were given a 50mg dose of LSD. Others were given 100 grams of mescaline. Both doses would be considered microdoses by today’s standards. 

Everyone who participated in the test experienced a boost in creativity. Some as high as 200%. 

Some of the problems that were solved during the session were: 

  1. A new approach to the design of a vibratory microtome.
  2. Space probe experiments devised to measure solar properties.
  3. Design of a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device.
  4. A mathematical theorem regarding NOR gate circuits.
  5. A new conceptual model of a photon. 

All of the men reported better job performance—especially in the areas of conceptualization and design. 

One week later, the participants were surveyed. They were asked about the experience again six weeks later. 

The participants reported lingering positive effects that included: 

  1. Enhanced functioning.
  2. Lowered inhibition and anxiety. 
  3. Better complex problem solving. 
  4. Enhanced fluency and flexibility of ideas. 
  5. A heightened capacity for visual imagery. 
  6. An increased ability to concentrate. 
  7. Heightened empathy with people. 
  8. Association of dissimilar ideas. 
  9. Better visualization of solutions. 

What we now know from the use of fMRI to look at the brain’s of people on psychedelics is that these substances form new network connections in previously unconnected parts of the brain. 

They also disintegrate the default mode network. The DMN is often responsible for rumination and mind wandering—which can lead to anxiety and unhappiness. 

Stanislav "Stan" Grof, a Czech psychiatrist who has conducted over 4,000 LSD therapy sessions, says in one of his books, “Consciousness does not just passively reflect the objective material world; it plays an active role in creating reality itself.

These psychedelic stories and more are told in detail in Steven Kotler’s audiobook, “Mapping Cloud 9.” 

In the next section, you’ll learn the neurological similarities between the effect of psychedelics and being in flow state. 

A Flow Breakthrough in Neurobiology 

Underneath everything with flow are neurobiological signals. With recent advancements in fMRI neuroimaging, scientists are getting a better look at real time brain function than ever before. 

In 2014 Scarlett Johansson starred in a movie called “Lucy.” It’s a sci-fi thriller which uses the 10% brain myth to depict a woman who is able to use 100% of her brain. 

The only problem is that we all use way more than 10% of our brains all the time. However, the 10% myth of brain use is so pervasive, it’s still widely believed. 

If you really only use 10% of your brain during normal functioning, the logical conclusion is that flow state must be the other unused parts lighting up.  


But brains are ruthlessly efficient. You don’t use more of your brain in flow—you use less.  

In flow state, the prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is the region of the brain responsible for executive tasks, like time keeping and working memory. 

Transient hypofrontality is the term used to describe what happens during flow. Things aren’t getting hyperactive in flow, they’re actually slowing down. Transient means “temporary.” Hypo means “slow.” And “frontality” refers to the brain’s prefrontal cortex. 

In flow, analyzing is replaced by effortless information processing. Everything becomes easier as you enter the deep present. 

This theory was first proposed by Arne Dietrich, a psychology professor who teaches courses in cognitive neuroscience. 

Another study in 2008 on jazz musicians by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist, Charles Limb, supported Dietrich’s findings. 

When a master jazz player improvises, they decide what notes to play on the spot. Freestyle rappers perform a similar function making up rhymes to a beat. 

When the brains of expert jazz musicians and rappers were studied, their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex became deactivated during performance. That’s the area normally used for self-monitoring and impulse control. 

When it’s deactivated, your brain  gets out of its own way so you can get into flow.  

Creativity spikes in flow because the part of your brain that normally doubts ideas or avoids risks isn’t in control anymore. That’s why flow can lead to new creative ideas. 

Studies show the prefrontal cortex goes offline during meditation too. But there’s a key difference between meditation and flow. In flow, the part of your brain that handles creative personal expression becomes hyperactive. 

Catching Flow Waves

Like throwing a rock into a pond—that’s how brain waves look when measured with EEG. 

In their book, “The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain,” (2015), Neuroscientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman explain how insights arise and what the scientific research says about stimulating more of them.

Understanding brain waves gives more insight into flow. These are the electrical impulses that happen in your brain when neurons talk to each other. 

Delta—the longest pause between electrical activity. This wave occurs during deep dreamless sleep. It’s important for memory. 

Theta—meditation and dreaming. This wave correlates to insight. 

Alpha—the brain’s basic resting state. Daydreaming mode. Alpha is associated with creativity. 

Beta—learning and concentration at its low end and stress and anxiety at the high end. 

Gamma—An “Aha!” moment shows up as a Gamma spike in your brain. You experience this as a bunch of thoughts coming together for the first time. It means a new neural network is forming. (Gamma spikes only occur when the brain is in Theta.) 

Flow takes place on the borderline between Alpha and Theta.  

This is when our brain is electrically-primed to have personal insights and increased physical advantages.  

Why is Flow Science Important? 

We all want to live more productive, meaningful lives. The people who have the most flow in their lives are the happiest people on earth

The study of flow is really the science of high performance. Exciting new discoveries are being made all the time. 

You could think of flow as being the door to the “more” most of us seek. 

Our mission at The Flow Research Collective is to understand the science behind ultimate human performance and use it to train up individuals and organizations.

If you want to determine what is stopping you from experiencing flow states, take our free flow blocker diagnostic


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