Flow States and The Force
A review of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler
The Force is real and accessible – but do you may have the will to develop it?
The Rise of Superman covers how a handful of men and women have pushed the envelope of human performance farther and faster than at any other point in the history of our species. This elevation of performance is most prominent in extreme sports but is also present in many disparate fields from the arts, to regular athletics, even to various cognitive fields – and most uniquely, within the special operations domain of the US Military. Is there a unifying concept that begins to explain part, or all, of these achievements?
The answer is yes. A concept that was once called “spiritual experience” by philosopher William James, then “Peak Experience” by Abraham Maslow, is now termed “Flow” by those that are currently researching the phenomenon. Flow may represent a window into the extent that humans can get in touch with the fabled “Force” of Jedi lore and the “source code” of the Matrix.
In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler thoroughly reviews the concept in the realm of action and adventure sports, for it is in these endeavors that “Flow” is detected most readily.
Success here requires “grit, fortitude, courage, creativity, resilience, cooperation, critical-thinking, pattern recognition, and high-speed ‘hot’ decision-making….every action, each decision leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next…being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.” It is a peak state where feeling our best and performing our best exist simultaneously. It sits at the heart of every high-level athletic championship and underpins the significant scientific breakthrough upon which human progress depends. Moreover, psychologists have found that the more flow we have in our lives, the happier we are. CNN reported that “A decade of research in the business world proves happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%.”
Abraham Maslow found that high achievers are motivated intrinsically, rather than extrinsically. They are deeply committed to testing limits and stretching potential. Their focused activity produces a state of peak experience, the same as William James’ “spiritual experience.” During such a state there is an “expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination, and empathy.” These states appear to be the “source code” of intrinsic motivation. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who we will refer to as “C15”) would go on to find that the happiest people on earth were those that had the most peak experiences – and that they worked incdredibly hard in order to have these experiences. The feeling didn’t come from relaxation or taking drugs or alcohol. It involved painful, risky, challenging activities that stretched the person’s capacity while simultaneously involving an element of novelty and discovery. After multiple interviews with people describing this experience as “flowy,” C15 renamed these peak experiences “flow.” He then defined it as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away, time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follow inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skills to the utmost.”
Before we go on to dissect Flow, how it works, and how you can experience more of it in your own life, we should look at one of the best examples of Flow – the Millenium Wave. Laird Hamilton shows us what can happen when a state of flow occurs in a novel, and dangerous, situation. The wave that Hamilton attempted to surf at Teahupoo took place at a time when the conditions were so dangerous that the waves were deemed unrideable.
“So much force was being generated that Hamilton, as he was trying to get into position for the tube ride, found himself getting sucked up the wave’s face. To hold steady, he had to reach down, to the outside of his surfboard, and drag his right hand in the water. Normally surfers reach inside and drag the left. It was the perfect counterintuitive move…and the only reason he’s alive today – but here’s the thing: no one had ever made that move before.” That move could not be practiced. It had to come from creativity and imagination, which came from a state of flow – and the thousands of hours of prior surfing experience that informed that maneuver.
In flow, it feels like there is no beginning or end. Existence seems eternal – a word that comes from Latin meaning “outside of time.” Awareness is narrowed to the deep present, and this focused attention pushes out fear. Thought is no longer dominant because thought leads to hesitation – the thinking already having been done during the time spent practicing and preparing for the moment. It is a state of becoming one with the universe, of tapping into the only piece of “the force” that I believe humans are capable of accessing. It is Morpheus freeing Neo’s mind. It is the embodiment of Francis Bacon’s famous axiom: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
Csikszentmihalyi (C15) isolated ten core components of flow:
- Clear goals
- Direct and Immediate feedback
- Balance between ability and challenge
- Concentration (focus, the power of full engagement)
- Loss of self-consciousness
- Distorted sense of time (due to prefrontal cortex inhibition)
- A sense of personal control
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding
- Lack of awareness of bodily needs
The first 3 are conditions for flow. The remaining seven do not all need to be present, but to the degree that they are, the stronger becomes the experience of flow.
Flow relies on the integration of mind and body and begins in the central nervous system. Scientists have studied the triumvirate of neuroelectrical activity, neuroanatomy, and neurochemistry to attempt an understanding of the process.
Neuroelectrically, Flow occurs in a relaxed state
Neuroelectricity correlates with the five measured brain waves on an EEG (electroencephalogram).
1 Beta is normal awakeness. It is learning and concentration at the low end of the frequency. Fear and stress are found at the high end.
2 Alpha is our resting state where we daydream or just “chillax.” It is relaxed and lucid but not actively engaged in thought.
3 Theta occurs briefly as we are falling asleep, and then prominently in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. It can happen in properly performed meditation and is a phase where the brain is actively evaluating novel stimuli and producing insight on the unconscious level.
4 Delta is the slowest, corresponding to deep sleep
5 Gamma occurs during binding (when different parts of the brain are integrating seemingly disparate ideas). Gammas always happen in association with theta oscillations. Theta processes novel incoming stimuli while gamma occurs as those stimuli are incorporated into new ideas. This is what leads to “Aha!” moments and is one reason REM sleep is so critical to our learning (Benadryl and Alcohol disrupt REM sleep BTW folks). But since a flow state hovers between alpha and theta it sets us up for insightfulness and creativity while in the conscious state. Flow appears to take place on the border between alpha and theta. It packs a double punch by increasing creativity while also increasing the speed and efficiency of our decision-making abilities.
Neuroanatomically, Flow is Transient Hypofrontality
Functional neuroanatomy is assessed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). C15 found that during a chess match, the prefrontal area of the brain became less engaged – a counterintuitive finding since we think of chess as being profoundly cognitively engaging. But the brain has two ways of decision-making. The explicit system is what we think of as the reasoning, logical, rational, conscious, and left-brained system. The implicit system is more closely associated with the right brain, unconscious, intuition, emotion, and feeling; relying more on skill and experience and automatic pattern recognition. The implicit system is fast and efficient, and its quality a function of how much hard work has previously been done when engaging the explicit system (the struggle phase of flow we will see later).
Flow is the disappearance of self, the distortion of time, the psychic connection to the universe. Neuroanatomically, the prefrontal cortex is where thinking occurs. It is counter-intuitive, but in a Flow state, there is less brain activity, not more. Flow leads to a state of clarity, of stripping away what is nonessential, erroneous, or harmful. It is the Ockham’s razor of the unconscious. Flow isn’t a heightened state of cognition but a heightened state of awareness. It trades the energy needed for higher functions for an increase in focus, attention, awareness – it is transient hypofrontality. When Obi-wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker to “let go Luke, use the force” he is essentially trying to get him to think less and use his instincts…to get into flow.
Neurochemically, Flow is the most powerful cognitive optimizer known
Flow’s two defining characteristics are how good it feels (it is always positive) and the way it optimizes performance. The five neurochemicals involved are among the most powerful mood elevators and ergogenic aids the body makes.
- Dopamine (DA): engagement, excitement, creativity, inquisitiveness. Humans are hardwired to explore and push the envelope. DA is released when we encounter risk or meet something new. Pharmaceutically the analog is cocaine.
- Norepinephrine (NE): increases arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control. Maintains focus when in flow. Pharmaceutically the analog is amphetamine.
- Endorphins: endogenous opiates that attenuate pain signals and are 100 times more potent than morphine. Pharmaceutically the analog is opiates/narcotics.
- Anandamide: from the Sanskrit word for “bliss.” An endogenous cannabinoid, it shows up in exercise-induced flow states. It elevates mood, attenuates pain, and is vaso and bronchodilatory. Amplifies lateral thinking allowing us to think “outside the box.” Pharmaceutically the analog is THC.
- Serotonin(5HT): helps us cope with adversity. Comes at the end of a flow state and is responsible for the after-glow effect. Pharmaceutically the analog is MDMA or ecstasy.
These five chemicals are the flow “cocktail.” All are neuropeptides and thus structured from amino acids (you need to have quality protein sources in your diet) except for Anandamide which derives from a poly-unsaturated fatty acid (so quality fats are important as well). The “cocktail” is even being recognized to contribute to the effectiveness of leadership. Simon Sinek’s newest book Leader’s Eat Last covers this very well.
Flow’s neurochemistry together also accelerates social bonding, trust, and the seamless integration of teams. The team effects of this are best seen in the suicide corner turn for the Base Jumpers in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Even a split second wrong move by this team of wing-suit jumpers flying in formation would spell the end for the team that successfully negotiated one of the tightest and most dangerous turns in the history of the sport.
Contrary to what you might believe, these aren’t adrenaline junkies. As professional kayaker Tao Berman states, “I’m the farthest thing from an adrenaline junky. I can’t stand that feeling. If I’m feeling adrenaline (epinephrine), it means I haven’t done my homework. It means it’s time to get out of my boat to reassess.” Flow is the opposite of this nervous, jittery, psychomotor retarded state. Flow is a creative problem-solving state. It is also a state of earned confidence. In the US where there is a trillion-dollar public health catastrophe in the making from prescription and illicit drug addiction, antidepressant use, and ADHD treatment, flow appears to be one of the few healthy and inspiring solutions. As Kotler points out, “Americans are literally killing themselves trying to achieve artificially the same sensations that flow produces naturally.” Unlike the artificially induced dead-end highs, flow revitalizes, reinvigorates, and reinspires the soul.
If we want to optimize our performance, we have to not only rethink the path toward mastery but reconsider the way we live our lives. Is talent overrated? I believe so, and the data back it up. Benjamin Bloom, an education psychologist, launched the Talent Project a few decades ago and found that what existed was not exceptional kids (although rare ones do exist) but exceptional conditions. Notably, the most common condition found was encouragement – and a lot of it. A parent or significant mentor who rewarded any display of talent and ignored or punished the opposite. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell points out that “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.”
Kotler also writes of the time-orientation of different personalities. Presents, as the name suggests, live for the moment. They are creative, spontaneous, and risk takers at heart. Futures are focused on tomorrow. They are deliberative, arduous, disciplined, and able to delay gratification. Part of the success of western civilization is the futurist perspective. Futures are in danger, however, that the delayed gratification and excessive devotion to work can stifle their motivation and lead them to burn-out. Philip Zimbardo found that the happiest, healthiest, most optimal performing humans blend both perspectives and that flow can help reorient presents toward the future and Futures toward the present – bringing balance to the force ;). An adequate challenge must be present to do this, however. The short-hand for learning is that the more emotionally powerful an experience, the higher the chance that the lessons learned are ingrained in long term memory vice short. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) found that snipers trained in flow techniques decreased their training time to mastery by a factor of 2.3. Thus flow doesn’t just provide a pleasurable path to mastery; it shortens the path. The hard work has to be put in for the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fire. As Archidamus, Spartan king during the beginning of the Peloponnesian War stated: “We do not need to suppose that men differ greatly from one another, but we can think that the strongest are those brought up in the hardest school.” But the duration we might have to endure this school appears to be shorter given the right approach, techniques, and technology.
For those that seek a closer relationship to the natural world, Doug Ammon notes that “Adventure sports form a modern Tao, allowing us to take part in the very forces that sculpted and shaped the world around us.” For those that are city-locked, there are many other on-ramps to flow, not just action/adventure sports. Writing, poetry, art, and music, as well as regular sports can elicit the phenomenon. What these all have in common are an element of utilizing the mind and the body together, usually in somewhat challenging or risky circumstances, and are a far cry from what is achieved on the Xbox ONE or PlayStation in your basement.
How to Trigger Flow
Flow Triggers fall into three categories:
- External – qualities of the environment
- Internal – trying something just slightly outside your skill set
- Social – risking truth, asking a beautiful woman out, public speaking
External triggers occur in an environment that is “rich,” which is a combination of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. Complexity can best be sought out in nature. This also explains the prevalence of flow in action and adventure sports which occur outside in the natural environment. Conditions are different from day to day, so novelty and unpredictability are high. Tennis players may find flow, but it is much harder because their court is usually the same from day to day.
The environment should be high consequence/risky. The third trigger is deep embodiment. This is full body awareness in space with the use of all of your senses, including vestibular awareness and proprioception. All of this leads to a loss of a certain part of your self. It is an interesting phenomenon that the ego shuts out much complexity, novelty, and unpredictability to preserve its inflated self-image. Thus flow states could have a benefit in making us less selfish and more empathic.
Inner triggers are psychological strategies that drive attention into the now. Attention should be intensely focused which is becoming more and more difficult in an increasingly hyperconnected world. C15 stated that clear goals (know what you are doing and why), immediate feedback (allows us to fine-tune performance), and challenge/skill ratio (challenge needs to be slightly greater than the skills you possess) are the three most critical. When the brain is charged with a clear goal then focus narrows, the unimportant is disregarded, and the now is all that is left. Immediate feedback means that cause and effect must be closely coupled. Challenge/Skill is important for if the challenge is too great for our skills, then fear predominates. If the challenge is too low, boredom rules. The figure below gives an excellent visual conception of these characteristics.
Flow occurs near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel. The spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough that we snap or shut down. How much? About 4%.
Mindset, as Kotler points out, refers to our feelings toward basic qualities like intelligence and athletic talent. Carol Dweck of Stanford University found that most people have one of two types of mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets believe that talent is innate (determinism), those with growth mindsets believe that skills, talents, and abilities are developed through hard work and persistence (free-will and volition). When my dad taught me that to be successful all you had to do was be honest and work hard, he was exhibiting a growth mindset. This distinction translates into many fields, even politico-economic systems such as socialism (fixed) versus capitalism (growth). When Dweck studied racecar drivers in 2007, she found that those with growth mindsets more easily entered flow and stayed there despite what might have gone wrong during a race. They were by far the group of winning drivers. Having a growth mindset may be one of the keys to maximizing flow in your life as well as giving you an optimistic outlook and the resulting happiness it brings. As Dweck states in Mindset, “If you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering.” If you don’t think you can improve then you will likely rationalize away the reasons for your failures. Thus growth mind-setters can more accurately “know thyself” and engage in more accurate challenge/skill ratios than fixed mind-setters.
Social Triggers are critical for triggering flow in teams. We are social beings. In the presence of others, we maintain better focus and drive. It may be the simplest flow hack in the world. It probably explains the phenomenon of improved performance in CrossFit boxes versus the Globo-gyms.
In team sports and activities, including surgical teams which I have been involved in on many occasions, there can be the sense that the team members act in unison as a single organism to reach the desired end of a life saved. It is hard to imagine the event that happened in the video below without the team being in an absolute flow state. It only took us 16 years of training after high school to develop that ability (the struggle phase of the flow cycle covered next).
Psychologist Keith Sawyer notes that “When performance peaks in groups this isn’t just about individuals in flow – it’s the group entering the state together, a collective merger of action and awareness, a ‘group flow.'”
Group Flow Triggers:
- Serious concentration
- Shared, clear goals (common end-state)
- Good communication
- Equal participation
- Element of Risk
- Familiarity – common language, shared knowledge base, unspoken understanding
- Blending egos – no one person is monopolizing the spotlight. Individual egos become one team ego
- Sense of Control – blends autonomy and competence
- Close listening – generating real time, spontaneous reaction and dialogue to the situation as it unfolds
- Always say yes – interactions are additive rather than argumentative
It is difficult to find this type of interaction in large groups, organizations, or corporations where communication is often stove-piped, siloed, guarded, and controlled and where there is an attempt to bring risk to a negligible level.
The Flow Cycle
Cardiologist Herbert Benson in The Breakout Principle defines a four part flow cycle:
- Struggle – the loading phase where there is much effort in development of skills or conditioning. It may be learning cognitively, training the body, focusing on skills development, or even meditation and soul searching. Struggle can be shortened with visualization, which activates numerous cognitive processes such as memory, attention, psychomotor control, and perception.
- Release – Taking your mind off the problem by severing prior thought and emotional patterns. In physical training this could take the form of a de-load week, when studying for exams this is breaking to watch a movie or going to sleep on a tough, unsolved problem. The mind needs time to take a break, integrate, and reset.
- Zone – this is the flow state. It is found at the far edge of our abilities, which makes struggle an important first stage. The triggers help indicate how to get into this state.
- Recovery – rest and return to a new normal
Is there a way to hack flow? Normally I don’t like short-cuts. The desire for a short-cut is how we developed a culture that seeks a pill for every ailment. A culture that has wasted millions on learning to “speed read,” ignoring the fact that a single word can change the meaning of a sentence. It just doesn’t happen folks. Besides, “that which we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.” Endeavor to earn all that you obtain and achieve. But, to be honest, there are ways to either shortcut the process in the “struggle” phase or to assist the process of getting into a flow state. Thus there are two phases of the Flow Cycle that can be hacked. In the Struggle Phase, some stimulants such as caffeine can certainly help both cognitively and physically. Novel supplements such as nootropics (TruBrain, Onnit products, Qualia) show promise in aiding cognition. Other new devices have been developed to “prime” the motor cortex for learning new psychomotor skills in both athletics and music. Products such as HALO Sport https://www.haloneuro.com and BrainSport http://discmdgroup.com/services/neurotopia/ may be another way to shorten the “10,000-hour rule” to mastery of a field.
Flow is a state that is only beginning to be understood. What is clear is that it can help us reach a higher state of happiness, realize multidomainal performance improvement, and achieve accelerated learning with a result of giving life both more quantity and quality. As Neuropsychiatrist Ned Hallowell states, “Flow is the doorway to the ‘more’ that most of us seek.” As the science develops, we are excited to continue you to update you on this topic and indicate how we are using it in our own lives.
For more info check out the Flow Research Collective. Also be on the lookout for our upcoming review of “Stealing Fire” which covers the neurochemical and pharmacologic aspects in greater depth.
Best, Lanny Littlejohn, MD
 Kotler, Steven. The rise of Superman: decoding the science of ultimate human performance. London: Quercus, 2015; vii – viii.
 Ibid. ix.
 Ibid. 21.
 Ockham’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other versions have it that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” or “the simplest explanation is likely the best.”
 The Rise of Superman. 74.
 Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler, and Richard Crawley. The Landmark Thucydides: a comprehensive guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Free Press, 2008; 1.84.
 Attributed to Thomas Paine in The Crisis, a pamphlet circulated during the American Revolutionary War
 In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell indicates that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary to be an expert in any field. He indicates that his point is that natural ability requires a huge investment of time to be made manifest. The number of hours will vary depending on domain and field.