Flow : The Neurology of Excellence 

A composer describes those moments when his work is at its best :

You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don't exist. I've experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by. 

His description is remarkably similar to those hundreds of diverse men and women - rock climbers, chess champions, surgeons, basketball players, engineers, managers, even filing clerks - when they tell of a time they outdid themselves in some favored activity. The state they describe called "flow" collected such accounts of peak performance during two decades of research. Athletes know this state of grace as "the zone," where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappearing into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Diane Roffe-Steinrotter, who captured a gold medal in skiing at the 1994 Winter Olympics, said after she finished her turn at ski racing that she remembered nothing about it but being immersed in relaxation: "I felt like a waterfall." 

Being able to enter flow is emotional intelligence at its best; flow represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performance and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. Yet flow (or a milder microflow) is an experience almost everyone enters from time to time, particularly when performing at their peak of stretching beyond their former limits. It is perhaps best captured by ecstatic lovemaking, the merging of two into a fluidly harmonious one. 

The experience is a glorious one : the hallmark of flow is feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture. Because flow feels so good, it is intricately rewarding. It is a state in which people become utterly absorbed in what they are doing, paying undivided attention to the task, their awareness on what is happening - the very thought "I'm doing this wonderfully" can break the feeling of flow. Attention becomes so focused that people are aware only of the narrow range of perception related to the immediate challenging operation during which he has in flow; when he completed the surgery he noticed some rubble on the floor of the operating room and asked what had happened. He was amazing to hear that while he was so intent on the surgery part of the ceiling had caved in - he hadn't noticed at all. 

Flow is a state of self-forgetfulness, the opposite of rumination and worry instead of being lost in nervous preoccupation, people in flow are so absorbed in the task at hand that they lose all self-consciousness, dropping the small preoccupations - health, bills, even doing well of daily life. In this sense moments of flow are egoless. Paradoxically, people in flow exhibit at masterly control of what they are doing, their responses perfectly attuned to the changing demands of the task. And although people perform at their peak while in flow, they are unconcerned with how they are doing, with thoughts of success of failure - the sheer pleasure of the act itself is what motivates them. 

There are several ways to enter flow. One is to intentionally focus a sharp attention on the task at hand; a highly concentrated state is the essence of flow. There seems to be a feedback loop at the gateway to this zone; it can require considerable effort to get calm and focused enough to being that task - this first step takes some discipline. But once focus starts to lock in, it takes on a force of its own, both offering relief from emotional turbulence and making the task effortless. 

Entry to this zone can also occur when people find a task they are skilled at, and engage in it at a level that slightly taxes their ability. As Csikszentmihalyi told me, "People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little damand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety." 

The spontaneous pleasure, grace, and effectiveness that characterize flow are incompatible with emotional hijacking, in which limbic surges capture the rest of the brain. The quality of attention in flow is relaxed yet highly focused. It is concentration very different from straining to pay attention when we are tired or bored, or when our focus is under siege from intrusive feelings such as anxiety or anger. 

Flow is a state devoid of emotional static, save for compelling, highly motivating feeling of mild ecstasy. The ecstasy seems to be a by-product of the attentional focus that is a prerequisite of flow. Indeed, the classic literature of contemplative traditions describes states of absorption that are experienced as pure bliss: flow induced by nothing more than intense concentration. 

Watching someone in flow gives the impression that the difficult is easy peak performance appears natural and ordinary. This impression parallels what is going on within the brain, where a similar paradox is repeated: the most challenging tasks are done with a minimum expenditure of mental energy. In flow the brain is in a "cool" state, its arousal and inhibition of engaged in activities that effortlessly capture and hold their attention, their brain "quiets down" in the sense that there is a lessening of cortical arousal. The discovery is remarkable, given that flow allows people to tackle the most challenging tasks in a given domain, whether playing against a chess master or solving a complex mathematical problem. The expectation would be that such challenging tasks would require more cortical activity, not less. But a key to flow is that it occurs only within reach of the summit of ability where skills are well-rehearsed and neural circuits are most efficient. 

A strained concentration - a focus fueled by worry - produces increased cortical activation. But the zone of flow and optimal performance seems to be an oasis of cortical efficiency, with a bare minimum of mental energy expended. That makes sense, perhaps, in terms of the skilled practice that allows people to get into flow : having mastered the moves of a task, whether a physical one such as rock climbing or a mental one such as computer programming, means that the brain can be more efficient in performing them. Well-practiced moves require much less brain effort than do ones just being learned, or those that are still too hard. Likewise, when the brain is working less efficiently because of fatigue or nervousness, as happens at the end of a long, stressful day, there is a blurring of the precision of cortical effort, with too many superfluous areas being activated - a neural state experienced as being highly distracted. The same happens in boredom. But when the brain is operating at peak efficiency, as in flow, there is a precise elation between the active areas and the demands of the task. In this state even hard work can seem refreshing or replenishing rather than draining. 

Emotional Intelligence / Daniel Goleman