One characteristic of flow is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of flow states.
And that feeling, of waking up to some ineffable truth that’s been in us all along, can feel deeply significant.
In flow states, the information we receive can be so novel and intense that it feels like it’s coming from a source outside ourselves.
But, by breaking down what’s going on in the brain, we start to see that what feels supernatural might just be supernatural: beyond our normal experience, for sure, but not beyond our actual capabilities.
Often, a flow experience begins when the brain releases norepinephrine and dopamine into our system. These neurochemicals raise heart rates, tighten focus, and help us sit up and pay attention.
We notice more of what’s going on around us, so information normally tuned out or ignored becomes more readily available.
And besides simply increasing focus, these chemicals amp up the brain’s pattern recognition abilities, helping us find new links between all this incoming information.
As these changes are taking place, our brainwaves slow from agitated beta to calmer alpha, shifting us into daydreaming mode: relaxed, alert, and able to flit from idea to idea without as much internal resistance.
Then parts of the prefrontal cortex begin shutting down.
We experience the selflessness, timelessness, and effortlessness of transient hypofrontality.
This quiets the “already know that, move along” voice of our inner critic and dampens the distractions of the past and future.
All these changes knock out filters we normally apply to incoming data, giving us access to fresh perspectives and more potential combinations of ideas.
As we move even deeper into the flow, the brain can release endorphins and anandamide. They both decrease pain, remove the diversion of physical distress from the equation, and let us pay even more attention to what’s going on.
Anandamide also plays another important role here, boosting “lateral thinking,” which is our ability to make far-flung connections between disparate ideas.
And, if we go really deep, our brainwaves shift once again, pushing us toward quasi-hypnotic theta, a wave we normally produce only during REM sleep that enhances both relaxation and intuition.
To wrap it all up, we can experience an afterglow of serotonin and oxytocin, prompting feelings of peace, well-being, trust, and sociability, as we start to integrate the information that has just been revealed.
And revealed is the right word.
Conscious processing can only handle about 12033 bits of information at once. This isn’t much. Listening to another person speak can take almost 60 bits. If two people are talking, that’s it.
We’ve maxed out our bandwidth. But if we remember that our unconscious processing can handle billions of bits at once, we don’t need to search outside ourselves to find a credible source for all that miraculous insight. We have terabytes of information available to us; we just can’t tap into it in our normal state.
Umwelt is the technical term for the sliver of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive.
And all umwelts are not the same. Dogs hear whistles we cannot, sharks detect electromagnetic pulses, and bees see ultraviolet light—while we remain oblivious.
It’s the same physical world, the same bits, and bytes, just different perceptions and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a flow state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us with greater accuracy.
In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt.
We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. And this lets us see the flow for what it actually is:
Flow is information technology. Big Data for our minds.