7 min|Dr. Jam Caleda

Surfing Life: The Neuroscience of Flow

Mind Health

You take a breath and hold it. The arch of your back begins to accentuate as you assume a bowed position while lying belly down. Instinctively your arms glide you along the surface, you don’t feel the burn in your muscles but it is there. You don’t think you hear anything, you don’t think you see anything, you don’t think you smell anything but you feel how to move. As the swell gathers beneath, your motion parallels the frequency and wavelength of nature, and like the tens, hundreds, or thousands of times before you assume the position of the drop. It feels new every single time. It feels new because the moment is new, and you are in it. Your toes are gripping the sliver of material underneath, which is your host during your communion with the Ocean. Time stops and you wave slide, for moments walking on water. Then you do it again, and again, until the end of your life because you look for that most addictive drug in the world: flow.

What is flow?

Flow is the state that emerges from a radical alteration in brain function. It is a switch from an ‘energy-expensive’ conscious processing, to a far more efficient form of subconscious processing where we “trade energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness” (1). Most, if not all of us have experienced flow at least once in our lives. It usually occurs when playing sports, moving subconsciously, creating art, meditating, or working in groups, such as a team or a band.

In whatever environment we experience it, it yields a profound positive effect on our psyche and even our physiology. There is a growing body of researcher that is looking into the positive aspects of this altered brain state and how to utilize it to improve efficiency, relationships, mental health, and even diseased states. And over the past decade, scientists have made enormous progress on this idea of flow.

What’s causing flow?

To understand flow, we must discuss the three different components which make it possible; the neuro-anatomy, the neurochemistry, and the neuro-electricity (2).There was an old rule that stated ‘we only use about 10% of our brain capacity at a single time, however during flow, or ultimate performance, it must be that our brains go into overdrive’. This was the idea that we were able to unlock a larger portion of our brains to perform a task. It turns out that we understood this concept exactly backward.

In flow, it’s not that parts of the brain become hyperactive but actually it becomes deactivated; we call this transient hypofrontality. Transient means that it is a non-permanent activity, hypo means under used, and frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex of our brain that dictates our executive thinking functions. This explains the characteristics of flow in the sense that time is not calculated, thoughts aren’t processed, and thinking switches to unconscious action.In flow, we see that the brain produces a giant cascade. This neurochemistry involves the release of norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins.

All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals, making us stronger, quicker, and more efficient without thinking. More importantly, these chemicals affect motivation, creativity, and learning. They make us feel good and therefore we seek to continue the activity that releases them, they allow recombination of thoughts, that able us to create something startlingly new, and they tighten focus allowing us to consume and assimilate more information (3).

The brainwaves of flow is just as interesting. We have 5 main brainwaves in physiological states, alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta. When we are awake we operate in a beta-wave state. When we experience transient hypofrontality our brains switch into the borderline of alpha and theta waves (4). Alpha waves are normally seen during our states of sleep in REM when we are dreaming, theta waves are seen during deep sleep. Interestingly, in flow we operate at the neuro-electrical boundary between dreaming and sleep, which when comparative to the state is a seemingly accurate description.

How to trigger flow?

There isn’t a single way to activate flow but researchers have identified several strategies which can jump-start the flow process. These triggers include three external, four internal, one creative, and nine social (2). Internal triggers are strategies that drive attention into the present moment.

  • Focus: Attention produces uninterrupted concentration. This translates to deep focus. Flow demands singular tasks and solitude.
  • Clear goals: This is important and you must know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Clear goal will allow the mind to work unconsciously.
  • Immediate feedback: This is important in guiding us in how we are doing so the mind doesn’t go off in search of clues for betterment. We keep fully present and focused and thus more likely to be in flow.
  • Challenge: Flow exists near the midline between boredom and anxiety. If a task is too dull attention dissipates, if it is too hard fear will inhibit performance. The challenge must be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table.

External triggers are qualities in the environment that drive people into the zone.

  • High consequences: Survival is fundamental to any organism, so our brain prioritizes this. When there’s danger lurking we are more likely to operate at a higher level.
  • Rich environment: This means an environment with a lot of novelty, unpredictability and complexity, these are three things that catch and focus our attention.
  • Deep embodiment: In this case it involves investment and commitment.

Social triggers are ways to alter social conditions producing a group flow seen in bands, teams, and other multi-person settings.

  • Serious concentration: this can help maximize performance and reduce external nonsensical stimulus unimportant to the task.
  • Shared clear goals
  • Good communication
  • Familiarity: As a group has a common language and knowledge base unspoken understandings emerge and insight is shared into a common collective.
  • Equal Participation and skill level: this is essential into having input and energy expended by all in the group to bolster the level of effectiveness and efficiency of the whole.
  • Risk
  • Sense of Control: this combines autonomy and challenge that can influence the group to rise to surmount risk.
  • Close listening: like immediate feedback, this facilitates progress and movement toward goals.
  • Always saying yes: This is quite important in that it allows dynamic to be building in quality as opposed to destructive. The goal is momentum, togetherness, and innovation and it all amplifies each other.

Creative triggers can be the influence of motivation and movement into a space of novel space. If you look under the hood of creativity what you see is pattern recognition - the brain’s ability to link new ideas, and risk taking – the courage to bring those ideas into the world.In whatever capacity, we are best served to be in a state of subconscious hyperfocus.

As we explore ways to relinquish the entrapments of the brain, we subsequently unlock the potential of the human mind and body. So as the swell comes dig deep, paddle, and go with the flow; you’ll always find something at the end of the wave.

Mahalo Nui Loa and much Aloha

  1. Dietrich, Arne. "Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow." Consciousness and Cognition4 (2004): 746-761.
  2. Kotler, Steven. The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
  3. https://bigthink.com/videos/the-neurochemistry-of-flow-states-with-steven-kotler
  4. Dietrich, Arne. "Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: the transient hypofrontality hypothesis." Consciousness and cognition2 (2003): 231-256.
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