We all recall times where we just hope we could zone in on the moment, focus on a given assignment without distractions, with the distilled clarity of Bradley Cooper’s character in the 2011 movie “Limitless.”
The reality is that we all have at some point achieved this state of consciousness. I distinctly remember feeling close to 100 percent focus once when I was studying for a math exam from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. — no lunch breaks, only math the entire time. I did not know then what that entire experience was called, but, not surprisingly, such experiences of losing the sense of time and being able to dive-in headfirst in the moment has been of interest to many scientists.
While this altered state of consciousness appears to stem from factors as simple as mood, the reality is that achieving this kind of focus is really a matter of complex, interlocking elements combining the anatomy and chemistry of the brain as well as one’s surrounding environment. And it’s no accident, either — simply by adjusting certain aspects of their life, people can achieve this state of perfect clarity.
According to acclaimed Univeristy of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmilhalyi, the flow state can be explained as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. It is a state in which one gets so focused on the task at hand that everything else seems to disappear, and time itself seems to shorten. It is that feeling you get when you feel you are the top of your performance.
There’s an entire set of neuroanatomical changes that occurs when one approaches the flow state. During the flow state, areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex actually slow down or deactivate. When this area, which is responsible for one’s sense of self and other higher cognitive abilities, shuts down, one enters an altered state, be it dreaming, meditation or flow.
More specifically to the flow state, the part containing one’s “inner critic” goes almost silent. The slowing down of activity in the prefrontal cortex explains why time seems to shorten as much of time conceptualization occurs in that part of the brain. It is these physical changes that occur that explain the sense of liberation and peaking creativity.
Along with neuroanatomical changes, neurochemical changes also occur in the flow state. Chemicals such as norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins are released, which make us able to process information more quickly. They also affect motivation by basically helping us feel better, making flow a very intrinsically pleasurable state of mind.
There are around seventeen triggers for flow, three of which are self-evident. High consequences and risk force us to focus. Risk need not be physical in any sense given the fact that the brain finds it hard to distinguish between social and physical fear.
A second environmental trigger is deep embodiment, which involves attunement with multiple sensory streams simultaneously. Deep embodiment at its core is a more mindful focus on the present. Yet another factor is a rich environment, which involves a certain degree of unpredictability and learning through doing.
The flow state is not so random that modifications cannot be made in one’s life to achieve this focus. In order to trigger flow, one only needs to simulate an environment conducive to flow with the elements of risk, deep embodiment and other stimulating surroundings.
It is important to know that flow is not binary, but rather a cycle of struggle, where first it takes longer to process information; release, where you divert your mind from the problem; flow, the state of optimal performance and finally recovery, where you return back to “normal.”
Achieving the flow state represents entering a state of lessened inhibition and the silencing of an inner critic that constrains one’s potential. This state proves that only by getting out of your head every once in a while can you really plumb the depths of your mind.
Sudhanshu Sisodiya is a freshman in the College. This is the final installment of MENTAL MUSINGS.