Ever wonder what's going on when your sense of self dissipates during a flow state?
Today we're going to be looking at that.
Here's the thing:
The experiences that most flow seekers crave — the disappearance of self, the distortion of time, and that “psychic connection” to the universe — are among flow’s more famous qualities, also its most peculiar.
While these phenomena are included in most standard descriptions of the zone, they are also the reason William James described the state as “mystical” and Maslow borrowed quasi-Buddhist terms like self-actualization for its long-term effects.
Not surprisingly, trying to understand how the brain produces this peculiarity has been a longtime goal of flow researchers. Unfortunately, until recently, there have been issues.
For most of the past half-century, in the “which part of the brain produces flow” sweepstakes, the prevailing wisdom has centered on the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
This makes sense. The PFC is the heart of our higher cognitive abilities.
It’s the place we collect data, problem solve, plan ahead, assess risk, evaluate rewards, analyze thoughts, suppress urges, learn from experience, make moral decisions, and give rise to our normal sense of self.
Since the zone is a state of heightened performance and enhanced decision-making, it seemed obvious to scientists that the entire PFC was involved, arguably functioning at a maximum level.
But this didn’t track with Arne Dietrich’s (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience) experience.
“The prefrontal cortex is where thinking happens,” he explains. “It’s where we take simple ideas and add all kinds of layers of complexity to them. But I was slipping into the flow on a regular basis and was always amazed by the clarity of the state. All that complexity was gone. Decisions were easy and automatic. It was like the opposite of thinking.”
So Dietrich started to wonder how the brain was eliminating this complexity — which is when it dawned on him:
The brain wasn’t eliminating complexity, it was eliminating the very structures that created this complexity.
“We had it backward,” he says. “In flow, parts of the PFC aren’t becoming hyperactive; parts of it are temporarily deactivating. It’s an efficient exchange.
We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
The technical term for this exchange is transient hypofrontality, with hypo (meaning slow) being the opposite of hyper (i.e., fast).
In flow, which parts of the brain become hypofrontality determines the nature of the experience — with a quick rule of thumb being: the greater the deactivation of neuronal structures, the more profound (and bizarre) the experience.
A breakthrough occurred in 2008 when Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb began using fMRI to examine the brains of improv jazz musicians and freestyle rappers immersed in the flow.
He found the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is also deactivated in the state.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain best known for self-monitoring and impulse control — both of which are important here.
Self-monitoring is the voice of doubt and disparagement, that defeatist nag, our inner critic. Since the flow is a fluid state — where problem-solving is nearly automatic — second-guessing can only slow that process.
When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, those guesses are cut off at the source. The result is liberation. We act without hesitation.
Creativity becomes more free-flowing, and risk-taking becomes less frightening.
This is another reason why flow states significantly enhance performance: when the “self” disappears, it takes many of our limits along for the ride.