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It’s not just a catchy term co-opted by efficiency experts to make their jobs sound more exciting; the flow state is (or rather, flow states are) absolutely a thing.
Each experience is different, but in general, a flow state is defined as a feeling of intense, yet calm focus that allows a person to work very productively on a singular task for several hours at a time.
But what exactly is a flow state, and how can a person train their brain to perform at this trance-like level of focus?
To answer these questions holistically enough for a complete beginner to achieve flow, we have to tour a surprisingly diverse landscape that covers mindfulness concepts, neuroscience, and of course, nutrition.Table of Contents
More than “spacing out,” a true flow state still allows for high productivity and skill when completing tasks. The neuroscience behind this phenomenon points to boosted brainwaves.
As described by this academic review on flow states from Swineburg University of Technology, the flow state is “A state of optimal performance denoted by smooth and accurate performance with an acute absorption in the task to the point of time dissociation and dissociative tendencies.”
It might be strange at first to hear “time dissociation and dissociative tendencies,” especially for those of us familiar on a personal and/or academic level with dissociative disorders, but this apparent disconnect between the person in the flow state and the rest of the world is measured and temporary.
In other words, you’re so focused on the task at hand, even your sense of time (and all other tasks) fade into the background, but not irretrievably.
The review goes on to list nine components that make up the flow state experience, including a balance between the person’s skill and the task at hand, a sense of control over the task or situation, immediate feedback and reward that compels further investment, and more.
It may seem overly technical to hit these finer points, but if these variables are not present, even a brain that has been nutritionally primed for flow may never reach this state, as we’ll cover more in a moment.
This just about covers what a flow state looks like from the outside, but what’s going on in that head?
As usual, there are competing and concurring opinions on the specific mechanisms that contribute to the flow state, all of which vary in their level of objective reinforcement.
Tiptoeing around the more theoretical explanations, one of the most concretely proven ideas is that the flow state depends on the optimization of two types of brainwaves: alpha and theta.
When patients and/or study participants are hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), medical personnel can measure the frequency of the electrical impulses that the brain emits, which are commonly grouped into five categories of brainwaves based on said frequency.
Alpha brainwaves are associated with relaxation (but not sleep, that’s delta), which makes sense in this case because you can’t maintain a flow state if you’re wired or stressed.
Theta brainwaves have a lower frequency and are even more strongly associated with deeper levels of relaxation, but still not full-blown sleep—more like heavy daydreaming.
In this study by Kwansei Gakuin University in Sanda, Japan, researchers who studied EEG data found that “theta activities in the frontal areas were higher in the Flow and the Overload conditions than in the Boredom condition, and alpha activity in the frontal areas and the right central area gradually increased depending on the task difficulty.”
In other words, alpha and theta play a strong role in supporting the flow state, but it’s important to distinguish optimization and balancing of these brain waves over cranking one or both of them up to 10.
As mentioned, there are upwards of a dozen theories floating around that offer more insight about which areas of the brain are doing what in a flow state, but most of them are more speculative (and technical) than this simple observation.
Moving to a more actionable area, if you understand the real-world factors that can promote these changes in the brain, you can add a major productivity booster to your work survival toolkit.
Environmental, nutritional, and intrinsic influences can all determine whether or not you enter a flow state, how long you’re in it, and more.
Situational factors inherent to the task at hand, i.e., how difficult it is, whether or not someone is monitoring you, and so forth can significantly affect the flow state.
Your ability to access, automate, and refine what most researchers call as the “implicit system,” which is essentially the internal reasoning that takes place regardless of what’s going on around you, is also crucial to achieving and maintaining flow.
Though there are other factors that exert smaller influences over flow, the third and final factor that tops the list is nutrition, which absolutely can (and does) impact your focus, memory, mood, and more.
The level of importance assigned to the task, the expected reward, the possible consequences for failure, the frequency at which you encounter this task, and other environmental/situational factors can positively or negatively affect flow state.
Most of these factors are logical; if failure means falling off a tightrope, then you’re likely to focus harder than if you were brushing your teeth.
If success means earning a huge promotion at your job, then you’re likely to focus harder than if the stakes were lower.
This is why true flow is characterized in part by assimilation of external factors into your internal processing system.
There’s a subtle difference between performing a skill that you’ve mastered through sheer repetition without thinking much and entering a true flow state.
The output may be fairly similar in both cases, but the case of the Taiwanese baseball players who participated in this study from Chang Gung Memorial Hospital (also in Taiwan) illustrates the important difference.
In the study, participants underwent a 4-week “mindful sport performance enhancement (MSPE)” workshop that the experimenters used to assess the impact of mindfulness on raw sports performance, including “competitive state anxiety.”
Before, during, and after the workshop, participants filled out questionnaires measuring their self-confidence, anxiety symptoms, depression, sleep, and other issues.
After the mindfulness workshop, researchers noted improvements in flow state, cognitive anxiety, competitive anxiety, and much more, all of which are key for improved athletic performance.
This idea of mindfulness, which is (heavily simplified definition alert) the practice of consciously appraising your thoughts and actions, as a supporter of the flow state speaks to an important dichotomy of conscious awareness and a sleep-like state, considering the alpha and theta brainwave elements.
The world of nootropics is lush with natural brain boosters that can facilitate a flow state by improving blood flow to the brain, making short-term memories easier to access, and many other mechanisms.
These nutrients number in the dozens, if not hundreds, but L-theanine is a fitting example.
In this study from the Central Research Institute in Shizuoka, Japan, participants were given L-theanine before having their reaction time to “attention tasks” measured, as well as their performance during said tasks.
According to the study, the use of L-theanine “reduced reaction time in the attention task increased correct answers and decreased the number of omission errors in the working memory task. This suggests that L-theanine may improve working memory and executive function based on the improvement in attention.”
Diving into the specific mechanism a bit more, contemporary studies show that L-theanine can manipulate alpha brainwaves in a way that improves the brain’s ability to focus for longer periods of time.
Given the sheer breadth and depth of this area, we’ll expand on this and several of the other nootropics that contribute to flow states, such as bacopa monnieri and alpha GPC, in dedicated articles.
Here’s the takeaway for anyone looking to spend more time in flow states: take a very holistic approach.
Nutrition is highly important here, but you also need an alignment of external and other internal factors if you want to reach this level of seemingly effortless productivity often.
With enough practice and preparation, you can merge the conscious and the subconscious for the betterment of your productivity and enjoyment.
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