Have you ever been so intensely focused on your task that you look up and realise six hours have passed and you've forgotten to get lunch? Well, there's a name for that and it's called the flow state. I personally love when I can get into my flow state - I tend to find it most when I'm painting, drawing, gardening or reading. It's almost like a meditation and most of my best artwork is created during these times.
As artist Adrian Hill discovered, art is one of the many activities that allows a person to enter into a state called the 'flow state.' This is a state of mind that someone can enter, that is similar to meditation, where they are completely immersed in and focused on a singular activity. Often people in a flow state lose sense of space and time because they are so absorbed in their activity. Flow state has existed for centuries but was identified and named as such in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism, the experience of flow state has been utilised to promote spiritual development. By practicing immersing activities like Aikido, Judo, Kendo and yoga, people can access the flow state and experience calmness, concentration and connection. Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi describe the flow state as: "intense and focused concentration on the present moment; merging of action and awareness; a loss of reflective self-consciousness; a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity; a distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered; experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding."
The scientific interest in flow states began in the early 1900s with research into the brain's effect on performance. William James documented the different methods the brain used to change consciousness and performance. When Walter Bradford Cannon discovered the fight-or-flight response it helped to explain the physiological responses that aid performance. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated by the flow state after observing artists, particularly painters, get so lost in their work that they ignored their body's needs for food or sleep. Csikszentmihályi and his colleagues were pioneers in the ever more popular science of flow state of the 1980's and 90's. Flow research was even an influence in the psychological theories of Maslow and Rogers.
In 2004, Csikszentmihályi explained in his TEDtalk that the brain can only process a finite amount of information at any given time: about "110 bits of information per second." While this sounds like a lot, simple everyday tasks such as decoding speech takes around 60 bits of information per second. As he goes on to explain, when a person is focused on a particular task the brain is physically incapable of processing any other information, such as the body's signals of hunger or thirst, because it is using all the available processing power to focus on the task at hand. Most of the time we are able to decide what we want to pay attention to, but when a person is experiencing flow the brain is completely engrossed and there is no more processing power available.
Csikszentmihályi interprets the flow state as an "optimal experience" or as many people throughout history have described it, "ecstasy." The point at which a person is in flow depends directly on the balance between their level of skill and the level of challenge the task presents. Most people experience flow while performing intrinsic or creative tasks such as composing, painting, or running. "One's capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals not only leads to the optimal experience, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall."
There are three factors that are involved with flow state: the task must have clear goals; the task must have immediate feedback; and the task must require a balance between a person's perceived skills and the task's perceived challenges. Conversely, some studies have found that tasks which have a low level of challenge but a reasonably high level of skill resulted in experiences of "enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness." Think, reading in the bath.
The reason why flow state has been getting so much attention recently is because of the increased quality of performance of those in a flow state. Studies have found that people who experienced flow state while performing their chosen task perceived their performance to be better than when not in flow. A study conducted with professional pianists found that when playing in the flow state heart rate and blood pressure decreased and facial muscles relaxed.
Csíkszentmihályi describes the mental state of flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
What’s your favourite flow state activity?