There are lots of ways to think about Flow States, but Steve Kotler and Jamie Wheale give a really good breakdown of Flow/4th gear states in their book Catching Fire. To help us know when we’re in, or getting some of the flavour of a flow state, we can ask ourselves afterwards (a true flow state is not one where the mind is busy with self-referential questions!) whether we experienced some STER? Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness (not initially, usually it takes a good bit of effort to get into a Flow state, unless it has been thoroughly habitualised) and Richness.
Here’s a bit more info about each of these different facets.
Despite all the recent talk about supercomputers and artificial intelligence, the human brain remains the most complex machine on the planet. At the center of this complexity lies the prefrontal cortex, our most sophisticated piece of neuronal hardware. With this relatively recent evolutionary adaptation came a heightened degree of self-awareness, an ability to delay gratification, plan for the long term, reason through complex logic, and think about our thinking. This hopped-up cogitation promoted us from slow, weak, hairless apes into tool-wielding apex predators, turning a life that was once nasty, brutish, and short into something decidedly more civilized.
But all of this ingenuity came at a cost. No one built an off switch for the potent self-awareness that made it all possible. “[T]he self “is not an unmitigated blessing,” writes Duke University psychologist Mark Leary in his aptly titled book, The Curse of the Self. “It is single-handedly responsible for many, if not most of the problems that human beings face as individuals and as a species . . . [and] conjures up a great deal of personal suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions.” When you think about the billion-dollar industries that underpin the Altered States Economy (cannabis, alcohol, food, movies, music, sports, gyms), isn’t this what they’re built for? To shut off the self. To give us a few moments of relief from the voice in our heads.
So, when we do experience a non-ordinary state that gives us access to something more, we feel it first as something less—and that something missing is us. Or, more specifically, the inner critic we all come with: our inner Woody Allen, that nagging, defeatist, always-on voice in our heads. You’re too fat. Too skinny. Too smart to be working this job. Too scared to do anything about it. A relentless drumbeat that rings in our ears.
Altered states can of course silence the nag. They act as an off switch. In these states, we’re no longer trapped by our neurotic selves because the prefrontal cortex, the very part of the brain generating that self, is no longer open for business.
Scientists call this shutdown “transient hypofrontality.” Transient means temporary. “Hypo,” the opposite of “hyper,” means “less than normal.” And frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that generates our sense of self. During transient hypofrontality, because large swatches of the prefrontal cortex turn off, that inner critic comes offline. Woody goes quiet.
Without all the badgering, we get a real sense of peace. “This peacefulness may result from the fact,” continues Leary, that “without self-talk to stir up negative emotions, the mystical experience is free of tension.” And with tension out of the way, we often discover a better version of ourselves, more confident and clear.
And the benefits of selflessness go beyond silencing our Inner Critic or inner Punitive Parent. When free from the confines of our normal identity, we are able to look at life, and the often repetitive stories we tell about it, with fresh eyes. Come Monday morning, we may still clamber back into the monkey suits of our everyday roles—parent, spouse, employee, boss, neighbor—but, by then, we know they’re just costumes with zippers.
Psychologist Robert Kegan, chair of adult development at Harvard, has a term for unzipping those costumes. He calls it “the subject-object shift” and argues that it’s the single most important move we can make to accelerate personal growth. For Kegan, our subjective selves are, quite simply, who we think we are. On the other hand, the “objects” are things we can look at, name, and talk about with some degree of objective distance. And when we can move from being subject to our identity to having some objective distance from it, we gain flexibility in how we respond to life and its challenges.
That’s Kegan’s point. When we are reliably able to make the subject-object shift, as he points out in his book In Over Our Heads, “You start . . . constructing a world that is much more friendly to contradiction, to oppositeness, to being able to hold onto multiple systems of thinking. . . . This means that the self is more about movement through different forms of consciousness than about defending and identifying with any one form.”
By stepping outside ourselves, we gain perspective. We become objectively aware of our costumes rather than subjectively fused with them. We realize we can take them off, discard those that are worn out or no longer fit, and even create new ones. That’s the paradox of selflessness—by periodically losing our minds we stand a better chance of finding ourselves.
A quick search on Google yields over 11.5 billion hits for the word “time.” In comparison, more obvious topics of interest like sex and money rank a paltry 2.75 billion and 2 billion, respectively. Time and how to make the most of it, appears to be about five times more important to us than making love or money.
And there’s good reason for this obsession. According to a 2015 Gallup survey, 48 percent of working adults feel rushed for time, and 52 percent report significant stress as a result. Bosses, colleagues, kids, and spouses all expect instant response to emails and texts. We never really get free of our digital leashes, even in bed or on vacation. Americans are now working longer hours with less vacations than any industrialized country in the world.
“Time poverty,” as this shortage is known, comes with consequences. “When [you] are juggling time,” Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan recently told the New York Times, “. . . you borrow from tomorrow, and tomorrow you have less time than you have today. . . . It’s a very costly loan.”
Non-ordinary states provide some relief from this rising debt, and they do it in much the same way as they quiet our inner critic. Our sense of time isn’t localized in the brain. It’s not like vision, which is the sole responsibility of the occipital lobes. Instead, time is a distributed perception, calculated all over the brain, calculated, more specifically, all over the prefrontal cortex. During transient hypofrontality, when the prefrontal cortex goes offline, we can no longer perform this calculation.
Without the ability to separate past from present from future, we’re plunged into an elongated present, what researchers describe as “the deep now.” Energy normally used for temporal processing gets reallocated for focus and attention. We take in more data per second, and process it more quickly. When we’re processing more information faster, the moment seems to last longer—which explains why the “now” often elongates in altered states.
When our attention is focused on the present, we stop scanning yesterday for painful experiences we want to avoid repeating. We quit daydreaming about a tomorrow that’s better than today. With our prefrontal cortex offline, we can’t run those scenarios. We lose access to the most complex and neurotic part of our brains, and the most primitive and reactive part of our brains, the amygdala, the seat of that fight-or-flight response, calms down, too.
In his book The Time Paradox, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, one of the pioneers in the field of time perception, describes it this way: “When you are . . . fully aware of your surroundings and of yourself in the present, [this] increases the time that you swim with your head above water, when you can see both potential dangers and pleasures. . . . You are aware of your position and your destination. You can make corrections to your path.”
In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Zimbardo’s Stanford colleagues Jennifer Aaker and Melanie Rudd found that an experience of timelessness is so powerful it shapes behavior. In a series of experiments, subjects who tasted even a brief moment of timelessness “felt they had more time available, were less impatient, more willing to volunteer to help others, more strongly preferred experiences over material products, and experienced a greater boost in life satisfaction.”
And when we do slow life down, we find the present is the only place in the timescape we get reliable data anyway. Our memories of the past are unstable and constantly subject to revision—like a picture-book honeymoon overwritten by a bitter divorce. “[M]emory distortions are basic and widespread in humans,” acknowledges cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, “and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.” The past is less an archived library of what really happened, and more a fluid director’s commentary we’re constantly updating.
Future forecasts aren’t much better. When we try to predict what’s around the bend, we rarely get it right. We tend to assume the near future will look much like the recent past. That’s why events like the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the 2008 financial collapse caught so many analysts flatfooted. What looks inevitable in hindsight is often invisible with foresight. Nobody at the end of 2019 foresaw Covid!
But when non-ordinary states trigger timelessness, they deliver us to the perpetual present—where we have undistracted access to the most reliable data. We find ourselves at full strength.
These days, we’re drowning in information, but starving for motivation. Despite a chirpy self-improvement market peppering us with endless tips and tricks on how to live better, healthier, wealthier lives, we’re struggling to put these techniques into action. Two out of three adult Brits, for example, are overweight or obese, even though we have access to better nutrition at lower cost than at any time in history. Eight out of ten of us are disengaged or actively disengaged at work, despite the HR circus of incentive plans, team-building off-sites, and casual Fridays. Big-box health clubs oversell memberships by 400 percent in the certain knowledge that, other than the first two weeks in January and a brief blip before spring break, fewer than one in ten members will ever show up. And when a Harvard Medical School study confronted patients with lifestyle-related diseases that would kill them if they didn’t alter their behaviour (type 2 diabetes, smoking, atherosclerosis, etc.), 87 percent couldn’t avoid this sentence. Turns out, we’d rather die than change.
But just as the selflessness of an altered state can quiet our inner critic, and the timelessness lets us pause our hectic lives, a sense of effortlessness can propel us past the limits of our normal motivation.
And we’re beginning to understand where this added drive comes from. In flow, as in most of the states we’re examining, six powerful neurotransmitters—norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, anandamide, and oxytocin—come online in varying sequences and concentrations. They are all pleasure chemicals. In fact, they’re the six most pleasurable chemicals the brain can produce and these states are one of the only times we get access to many of them at once. That’s the biological underpinning of effortlessness: “I did it, it felt awesome, I’d like to do it again as soon as possible.”
When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did his initial research into flow, his subjects frequently called the state “addictive,” and admitted to going to exceptional lengths to get another fix. “The [experience] lifts the course of life to another level,” he writes in his book Flow. “Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control. . . . When experience is intrinsically rewarding life is justified.”
So, unlike the slog of our to-do lists, once an experience starts producing these neurochemicals, we don’t need a calendar reminder or an accountability coach to make sure we keep doing it. The intrinsically rewarding nature of the experience compels us. “So many people find this so great and high an experience,” wrote psychologist Abraham Maslow in his book Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, “that it justifies not only itself, but living itself.”
This explains why action and adventure athletes routinely risk life and limb for their sports and why spiritual ascetics willingly trade creature comforts for a chance to glimpse God. “In a culture supposedly ruled by the pursuit of money, power, prestige, and pleasure,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, “it is surprising to find certain people who sacrifice all those goals for no apparent reason. . . . By finding out why they are willing to give up material rewards for the elusive experience of performing enjoyable acts we . . . learn something that will allow us to make everyday life more meaningful.”
But you don’t have to take extreme risk or give up material reward to experience this benefit. It shows up wherever people are deeply committed to a compelling goal. When John Hagel, the cofounder of Deloitte consulting’s Center for the Edge, made a global study of the world’s most innovative, high-performing business teams—meaning the most motivated teams on the planet—he too found that “the individuals and organizations who went the farthest the fastest were always the ones tapping into passion and finding flow.”
This ability to unlock motivation has widespread implications. Across the board, from education to health care to business, motivational gaps cost us trillions of dollars a year. We know better; we just can’t seem to do better. But we can do better. Effortlessness upends the “suffer now, redemption later” of the Protestant work ethic and replaces it with a far more powerful and enjoyable drive.
The final characteristic of the ecstasis of flow is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states.
The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.” A powerful sense of remembering. Nineteenth century psychologist William James experienced this during his Harvard experiments with nitrous oxide and mescaline, noting it’s “the extremely frequent phenomenon, that sudden feeling . . . which sometimes sweeps over us, having “been here before” as if at some indefinite past time, in just this place . . . we were already saying just these things.” And that feeling, of waking up to some ineffable truth that’s been in us all along, can feel deeply significant.
In non-ordinary states, the information we receive can be so novel and intense that it feels like it’s coming from a source outside ourselves. But, by breaking down what’s going on in the brain, we start to see that what feels supernatural might just be super-natural: beyond our normal experience, for sure, but not beyond our actual capabilities.
Often, an ecstatic experience or an experience where we touch into flow in our day-to-day begins when the brain releases norepinephrine and dopamine into our system. These neurochemicals raise heart rates, tighten focus, and help us sit up and pay attention. We notice more of what’s going on around us, so information normally tuned out or ignored becomes more readily available. And besides simply increasing focus, these chemicals amp up the brain’s pattern recognition abilities, helping us find new links between all this incoming information.
As these changes are taking place, our brainwaves slow from agitated beta to calmer alpha, shifting us into daydreaming mode: relaxed, alert, and able to flit from idea to idea without as much internal resistance. Then parts of the prefrontal cortex begin shutting down. We experience the selflessness, timelessness, and effortlessness of transient hypofrontality. This quiets the “already know that, move along” voice of our inner critic, or inner coach and dampens the distractions of the past and future. All these changes knock out filters we normally apply to incoming data, giving us access to a fresh perspectives and more potential combinations of ideas.
As we move even deeper into flow, the brain can release endorphins and anandamide. They both decrease pain, removing the diversion of physical distress from the equation, letting us pay even more attention to what’s going on. Anandamide also plays another important role here, boosting “lateral thinking,” which is our ability to make far-flung connections between disparate ideas, as well as solve life-problems or frustrations. Post-its, Slinkys, Silly Putty, Super Glue, and a host of other breakthroughs all came when an inventor made a sideways leap, applying an overlooked tool in a novel way. In part, that’s anandamide at work.
And, if we go really deep, our brainwaves shift once again, pushing us toward quasi-hypnotic theta, a wave we normally produce only during REM sleep that enhances both relaxation and intuition. To wrap it all up, we can experience an afterglow of serotonin and oxytocin, prompting feelings of peace, well-being, trust, and sociability, as we start to integrate the information that has just been revealed.
And revealed is the right word. Conscious processing can only handle about 120 bits of information at once. This isn’t much. Listening to another person speak can take almost 60 bits. If two people are talking, that’s it. We’ve maxed out our bandwidth. But if we remember that our unconscious processing can handle billions of bits at once, we don’t need to search outside ourselves to find a credible source for all that miraculous insight. We have terabytes of information available to us; we just can’t tap into it in our normal state.
Umwelt is the technical term for the sliver of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. And all umwelts are not the same. Dogs hear whistles we cannot, sharks detect electromagnetic pulses, bees see ultraviolet light—while we remain oblivious. It’s the same physical world, same bits and bytes, just different perception and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy.