The Science of Optimal Human Performance: Flow

Have you ever been so completely immersed in a task that hours flew by unnoticed? So absorbed with what you were doing that it became a goal in itself, effortless, and left you feeling accomplished? This experience is called ‘Flow’ (or in the zone) and is commonly referred to as peak human performance, the optimal state of consciousness where the self-disappears, time vanishes, and your cognitive abilities explode. Flow is the state of total immersion while doing an activity that arises from intense concentration around your own actions and their immediate feedback.


The term Flow was popularized in the 1990s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who conducted a survey asking experts — chess players, doctors, athletes, etc. — when they felt their best and performed their best. What he found was that humans, when the conditions are right, are able to enter a hyper-focused state that improves performance, cognition, absorption and happiness. Recently, scientists have discovered that when in Flow the slower and energy-expensive system 2 thinking (conscious processing) is traded for the much faster and more efficient processing of the subconscious, system 1 thinking. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” says American University in Beirut neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, who helped research this phenomena. “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”


Recently, a study conducted by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of improv jazz musicians in Flow. What he found was that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain best known for self-awareness, is deactivated when in Flow. Self-monitoring is your inner critic, constantly second-guessing your thoughts and actions. Without this constant critical judgement and analyzing, behavior can become more fluid and automatic.


In the flow state, you exhibit increased brain function and improved productivity. You’re faster and processing data which leads to deeper and more focused thinking. A study by McKinsey & Company illustrates the difference being in a state of flow can enhance business performance. Executives in a state of flow were five times more productive than their peers and the study found that if you increase your time in the flow by 15 to 20 percent, you can double productivity.


The science behind Flow is only increasing, and cutting-edge tools like hypnosis and neurotech are nearly able to engage this state instantly. Until then, I’ll investigate the best strategies to help you enter flow when you need to most.

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