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The Neuroscience of Flow

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

Flow is a mental state of focused attention in which we become productive and creative without apparent effort


Climber in an overhanging wall.
Flowing up a difficult climb. Texas Canyon, California. Photo by the author.

What is flow?

You may have heard of flow, a seemingly magical state that some people enter when they write that lets them be tremendously productive and creative with little effort. Flow happens in many arts, like painting, performing music and dancing. We also hear of flow in sports. The archetypical one is rock climbing, but it can also occur in skiing, hiking, running, sailing and any other sport. It may be a bit more difficult to enter flow in competition sports, because ego gets in the way.

How can flow be the same mental state in writing and rock climbing? These are very different activities. Writing is almost purely mental, while rock climbing is physical and scary.

In what activities can we enter flow? Can it be just any activity?

Is flow the same thing as mindfulness?

Is flow real or an illusion? Does brain activity really change when we enter flow?

In this article, I will answer these questions by examining the neuronal circuits in the brain that mediate flow.

The six characteristics of flow

Flow is a mental state of focused attention on a task—which can be an art, a mental activity or a sport—without apparent effort (“effortless effort”).

It was defined in the 1970 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as:

“An optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best” (Kotler et al., 2022).

Csikszentmihalyi gave flow these six characteristics:

  1. Focused attention on a task.

  2. Merging of action and awareness.

  3. Decreased self-awareness.

  4. Altered perception of time, which either speeds up or slows down.

  5. Feeling of complete control.

  6. Positive emotions like joy, pleasure, euphoria, meaning and purpose.

Triggers of flow

According to a recent review paper (Kotler et al., 2022), the state of flow is driven by:

  1. Having clear goals. Knowing what you want to do and how you want to do it.

  2. Quick feedback. Getting clear signals about the effectiveness of your effort.

  3. Balance between challenges and skills. Flow cannot be achieved if your skills are not sufficiently developed to accomplish the task. But you don’t enter flow, either, if the task is so easy that it can be accomplished by routine or memory.

  4. Novelty and unpredictability. You enter flow when the activity that you are doing engages your curiosity and challenges your attention.

  5. Complexity. During flow, you must be learning something from your activity.

  6. Insight. Flow involves creativity, so you discover new things about your task as you do it.

  7. Risk. Some activities that induce to flow, like rock-climbing, skiing or martial arts, involve physical risk. There is an element of fear that maintains the focus of the attention. Others, like writing, performing music or painting, do not entail physical danger, but the emotional risk of failure.

  8. Awareness across multiple senses. Many of our senses are involved during flow, including interoception and muscle feedback.

  9. Curiosity. Experimentation and learning new skills are important during flow. There is basic curiosity about the outcome of the new things we try.

  10. Autonomy. Flow requires being self-sufficient and self-confident.

  11. Passion. You care deeply about what you are doing.

  12. Purpose. Flow requires an unbending will to stay engaged in your task.

  13. Mastery. Flow can only be accomplished after mastering a particular art, sport or activity. You don’t enter flow when you start learning a new sport or art because there is too much self-consciousness involved.

Are there different flow states?

It seems that, as long as these requisites are fulfilled, any activity can put you in a state of flow. However, it doesn’t seem logical that we have the same mental state when doing tasks as vastly different as writing and rock climbing. Surely, they engage different parts of our brain, no? Could it be that there are different states of flow with some common characteristics?

In fact, in the scientific literature, there is a discrepancy about whether flow activates or deactivates the amygdala, an important part of the brain that mediates fear, aggression and other emotions.

The paper by Kotler et al. proposes a thought experiment in which somebody is driving a motorcycle when a car suddenly moves into his lane, forcing him to swerve. This may not be a good example of flow because it normally does not involve a surprising, scary event, but a decision to start an activity that requires effort and concentration. Regardless, the authors describe the sequence of activation of brain areas leading to flow instead of panic. Activation of the amygdala is key in this sequence of events.

The opposite case is illustrated by the studies of Ulrich et al. (Ulrich et al., 2014; Ulrich et al., 2016a, b), consisting of fMRI brain imaging in volunteers who achieved flow by doing arithmetic tasks. Of course, these did not involve surprise or fear. In this case, the amygdala became deactivated.

This discrepancy suggests the existence of two types of flow. The first occurs in activities like driving a motorcycle, rock-climbing or martial arts, which involve risk and fear. In these cases, the amygdala gets activated. The second occurs in activities like performing arithmetical tasks, writing or playing music, which do not involve fear, but a calm state of mind. In these states of flow, the amygdala gets deactivated.

In his book about flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008), Csikszentmihalyi implies that it is uniquely human. However, I think that predatory animals enter flow when they hunt. You can see it, for example, in the focused attitude of a cat stalking its prey. This suggests that there is a third modality of flow: predatory aggression (Haller, 2018). In humans, we find it in the focused attention of hunters and fishermen. While it usually does not involve fear, predatory aggression also activates the amygdala.


Color graphic of the default mode network of the human brain
Default mode network, by Andreashorn, CC BY-SA 4.0. “This image shows main regions of the default mode network (yellow) and connectivity between the regions color-coded by structural traversing direction (xyz → rgb).”

Deactivation of the default mode network

Since it was first described Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1970, the brain activity that accompanies flow has been described in details by neuroscience studies like the ones cited above.

When it is not in flow, the brain state consists of the default mode network. This network is are a series of interconnected brain regions that are active when we are not doing anything in particular. It is engaged we are daydreaming, thinking about ourselves, remembering the past, or planning for the future.

The default mode network it is composed of the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus and the angular gyrus.

  • The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in thoughts about ourselves.

  • The posterior cingulate cortex is located deep inside the fissure that separates the brain hemispheres, behind the anterior cingulate cortex. It is involved in awareness and memory retrieval, particularly spatial and autobiographical memory.

  • The precuneus is part of the superior parietal lobule, located halfway to the back of the brain. It is involved in the processing of visual and spatial information, episodic memory, self-awareness and consciousness.

  • The angular gyrus is also part of the parietal lobe, located at the bottom back of it. It is involved in reading, language, processing numbers, memory and attention. It also participates in theory-of-mind: our ability to create mental models of what goes on in other people’s minds.

During flow, the default mode network becomes deactivated.

Activation of the saliency network

Kotler et al. propose that flow is initiated by a shift from the default mode network to the saliency network. Although they propose that this shift is triggered by a surprising event, it could also be produced by the struggle to perform a difficult task, or by the decision to focus the attention on a task.

The saliency network is in charge of increasing the importance of certain stimuli by presenting them to consciousness (salience), while other stimuli are relegated to the background and remain unconscious.

Salient feelings are those that are important for survival—like pain, pleasure, disgust and fear. Other salient stimuli are important for reproduction—like sexual desire, seeing a loved one or caring for children.

However, if we have decided that a task—like writing or playing music—is important for us, anything related to that task becomes salient.

The saliency network is primarily formed by the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. It also includes the inferior parietal cortex, the right temporoparietal junction, the pre-supplementary motor area and the lateral prefrontal cortex.

The primary function of the anterior cingulate cortex is to select plans for action. It does that by identifying conflicts and errors in executing actions, and discovering new action plans. In the flow state, this leads to creativity.

The anterior insula also mediates the monitoring of performance and error processing, using its capacity to anticipate the state of the body as a result of a certain action.

Involvement of the dopamine pathways

The activity of the saliency network is dependent on the striatal dopaminergic pathway (Wise and Robble, 2020). Dopamine neurons are located in a region of the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and also in the substantia nigra. Axons going from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens form the reward pathway, where addictive drugs induce craving.

Dopamine neurons from the VTA also project to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex, playing a key role in maintaining focus in whatever we are doing.

The VTA is activated when the salience network receives sensations that are novel, rewarding, or that conflict with ongoing expectations.

There are two types of dopamine neurons in the VTA:

  • Value-coding neurons are activated by unexpected rewards and inhibited by unexpected distressing events. They project to the shell of the nucleus accumbens and to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

  • Saliency-coding neurons are activated by the incentive value of new information, motivating us to act. They project to the core of the nucleus accumbens and to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

During flow, the struggle to start a hard task initially decreases dopamine release from the value-coding neurons. Once we have overcome this struggle period, the saliency network drives dopamine release from the saliency-coding neurons that connect the VTA with the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In these brain regions, dopamine helps sustain effort-based decision-making, leading to tenacity, grit and resilience. This creates the feeling of effortless effort during flow.

However, another part of the prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, gets inhibited during flow. The medial prefrontal cortex is part of the default mode network and mediates thoughts about our self, our past and our future. Its inhibition is what produces the selfless feeling characteristic of flow.


Brain images of the default mode, salience and central executive networks
Brain images of the default mode, salience and central executive networks. ACC: anterior cingulate cortex; DLPFC: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; INS: insula; mPFC: medial prefrontal cortex; PCC: posterior cingulate cortex; PPC: posterior parietal cortex. By Nekovarova, Fajnerova, Horacek, Spaniel. Wikimedia Commons.

Engagement of the executive attention network

As the state of flow gets established, the salience network induces the activation of the executive attention network.

While the salience network is activated by stimuli that are important for survival, the executive attention network is engaged when the brain takes charge and directs the attention.

The executive attention network is involved in cognitive control, working memory, sustained attention and the solving of complex problems.

It is also called the frontoparietal network, and is formed by the rostral lateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex.

One key function of the executive attention network is sensory-gating: filtering out sensations that are not relevant to the task at hand. This happens when the prefrontal cortex inhibits the reticular nucleus of the thalamus. The thalamus is located in the center of the brain, and is a hub where different sensory stimuli are processed, filtered and directed to different areas of the cortex. Therefore, the prefrontal cortex directs the thalamus to select sensations that are related to the task that we are doing, and to inhibit the rest.

The amygdala and the locus coeruleus

As I said above, there are two different types of flow, depending on whether the amygdala gets activated or inhibited. While the type of flow involved in writing inhibits the amygdala, the type of flow involved in rock climbing activates it.

The amygdala is the area of the brain that mediates fear, anxiety, aggression and other emotions. It is connected to the dopamine reward pathway of the striatum.

It has two main parts:

  • Basolateral amygdala, involved in the three responses to stress: fight, flight and freezing.

  • Central amygdala, involved in the formation and storage of fear memories.

The central amygdala sends axons to two areas in the brain that initiate pain inhibition: the periaqueductal gray (PAG), which is the origin of the endorphin analgesic pathway, and the locus coeruleus, which is the origin of the norepinephrine analgesic pathway.

The locus coeruleus is critical for flow. It not only sends norepinephrine-releasing axons to the spinal cord to inhibit pain, but also to different areas of the cortex, where they maintain attention. These include:

  • Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, where norepinephrine increases focus and performance.

  • Ventrolateral orbitofrontal cortex, where it reduces impulsivity (the urge to take careless action), which is essential for purposeful control.

  • Temporal parietal junction, where it increases empathy.

  • Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in action planning. Its feedback to the amygdala serves to sustain flow.

Noradrenergic projections from the amygdala to the hypothalamus activate the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to increases in cortisol and adrenaline in the blood. This hormonal stress response increases the heartbeat to sustain muscular activity.

However, it seems that activation of the amygdala, locus coeruleus and HPA axis is important in the rock climbing type of flow, but not is the writing type of flow. The former, but not the latter, is triggered by the perception of danger.

The fear caused by a risk activity can lead to three different stress responses: fight, flight or freeze. Only the first takes us into flow. Here, fight doesn’t mean aggression, but engaging with the source of fear. In contrast, flight means avoiding the challenge, maybe by procrastinating or daydreaming instead of performing the activity. Freeze means becoming passive.

There is a switch in the brain that puts it into fight mode instead of flight or freezing. It is located in the thalamus, the area in the center of the brain that serves to sort out sensory information on its way to the cortex. The freeze response is mediated by the xiphoid nucleus (Salay et al., 2018), located in the ventral midline of the thalamus. Fight responses are mediated by projections from the nucleus reuniens, which surrounds the xiphoid nucleus, to the medial prefrontal cortex.

Flow and mindfulness

Flow is not the same as mindfulness, although both states support each other when we practice them.

In mindfulness, our conscience is passive, taking in incoming feelings without judging them. It activates the salience network. 

In flow, our consciousness is in an active state. In it, the executive attention network takes over the salience network.

Unlike mindfulness, in flow our consciousness selects the sensations necessary to perform a task instead of giving equal weight to all stimuli.

Although both mindfulness and flow turn off judging, they do it in different ways. In flow, the inhibition of the medial prefrontal cortex makes us forget about our self. The activity that we are doing completely fills our consciousness. One type of judging remains: the feedback from our activity. But it doesn’t involve self-criticism. In mindfulness, judging is turned off purposely by looking at all stimuli with equanimity.

Final remarks

I have shown here that the brain circuits that mediate flow are quite well understood.

One consequence of this is that neuroscience is beginning to understand consciousness quite well. Unlike being something ethereal and separated from the mind, as proposed by some mystics and philosophers, consciousness exists in different states, each controlled by its own neuronal network in the brain. These states include the default state, mindfulness and flow.

Learning to enter flow can help us work at our jobs with a feeling of fulfillment and effortlessness. If we engage in artistic activities, it will increase our creativity and take us to the edge of our capabilities.

Other states of flow can be entered while doing sports. When danger is present, as in rock climbing or skiing, flow let us use our fear to increase our focus, thereby decreasing the risk by maximizing our performance.

However, we don’t need to practice a difficult art or a dangerous sport to enter flow. Any activity can lead us to this mental state if we find a way to challenge ourselves while doing it. The key is to avoid mechanical action and daydreaming, which keep our brain in the default network.

During Zen retreats (sesshins), I was taught how to stay mindful while doing menial tasks like cutting vegetables, washing dishes or sweeping the floor. The determination of staying completely focused on the task created a challenge that put me in a state of flow.

Flow feels great! When we learn how to enter it, there are no more boring tasks, no more unpleasant work. Every task can be joyful because what matters is not what we do, but the mental state in which we do it.

Like any other mental activity, flow is habit-making. This means that, once your brain learns to go into flow, it becomes easier and easier to enter that state.

As we do more and more activities in a state of flow, it becomes a way of life. One that leads us to a life worth living.

References

  • Csikszentmihalyi M (2008) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: HarperCollins eBook.

  • Haller J (2018) The role of central and medial amygdala in normal and abnormal aggression: A review of classical approaches. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 85:34-43.

  • Kotler S, Mannino M, Kelso S, Huskey R (2022) First few seconds for flow: A comprehensive proposal of the neurobiology and neurodynamics of state onset. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 143:104956.

  • Salay LD, Ishiko N, Huberman AD (2018) A midline thalamic circuit determines reactions to visual threat. Nature 557:183-189.

  • Ulrich M, Keller J, Grön G (2016a) Neural signatures of experimentally induced flow experiences identified in a typical fMRI block design with BOLD imaging. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 11:496-507.

  • Ulrich M, Keller J, Grön G (2016b) Dorsal Raphe Nucleus Down-Regulates Medial Prefrontal Cortex during Experience of Flow. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 10:169.

  • Ulrich M, Keller J, Hoenig K, Waller C, Grön G (2014) Neural correlates of experimentally induced flow experiences. NeuroImage 86:194-202.

  • Wise RA, Robble MA (2020) Dopamine and Addiction. Annu Rev Psychol 71:79-106.

Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.

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