Imagine you are Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One driver, your engine screaming as you approach a hairpin bend at 200 miles per hour. There is a car in front of you and one close to your back wheels, the conditions are not perfect, there’s standing water on the track. You have to make a hundred calculations quickly in your head about your positioning and speed to make the bend, avoid the traffic and maintain your exit trajectory. Your thoughts and reactions go beyond conscious levels and nothing else exists apart from the immediate situation before you. You factor everything in, make your move and exit the corner, overtaking the car in front of you. Now, on to the next bend to do it all over again.
Very few of us will ever be in a Formula One car, but all of us can relate to this experience of being ‘in the zone’. And there’s a proper scientific name for it. It’s called the Flow state.
When people are in a Flow state they typically report feeling;
- totally focused the task in front of them
- at their best
- a distortion of time, it slows down, speeds up or become irrelevant
Flow isn’t just for adrenaline junkies, it operates across all sorts of arenas.
McKinsey undertook a ten year study that found executives are five times more productive when they are in a Flow state. That means what you would normally get done in a week you could do in a day. The military have also used electronics to induce a Flow state and found that snipers learned 230% faster than normal. Imagine getting up to speed and then on to expert levels in less than half the time.
Why is Flow so effective? The reason is based in biology as much as psychology. Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project (https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-kotler-4305b110/) is the leading expert in Flow. He reports that when you are in that state your brain starts releasing five key drugs into your system to maximise your potential.
Norepinephrine is like adrenaline. It is the ‘fight or flight’ drug that constricts your blood vessels, increases blood pressure and releases high level of blood sugar. This means your body now has access to the energy it needs to handle the task in front of you.
The body’s natural pain killer, it’s the same drug that is triggered by morphine. It means that when you are in Flow your tolerance for pain increases way beyond your normal level. You can work for longer and stay focused.
This supercharges your higher thought processes and gives you precision control of your movements. It is known to create lateral connections in your memory so that you start making connections you didn’t make previously. It’s like laying the full contents of your mind out in front of you so you can see everything at once.
The same drug that is triggered when a person takes an ecstasy (MDMA) pill. It raises your mood levels and makes you feel more positive.
Dopamine keeps you alert and is linked to driving the reward system in your brain. You have more chance of noticing something and then having the drive and belief that you can make it happen. Lab experiments with rats showed that those with high dopamine levels would climb over a fence to get to a bigger pile of food, whilst those which had low levels opted for a smaller, safer pile.
If you combine all of those effects you will;
- have all the energy you need, your
- have a higher pain threshold
- feel good
- can access all your knowledge at once to make new connections
- turn your thoughts into actions at greater speed
What would your life be like if you could be in that state all the time? You would be Superhuman.
However these drugs are not limitless, you cannot operate at this peak during every waking moment. What you can do however is maximise your time in Flow.
Read part two on Flow Cycles to find out how