THE CHEMISTRY OF FLOW
What happens in your brain when flow occurs?
Implicit thinking: In experiments on chess players, researchers using electroencephalogram imaging to measure brain activity found that it decreased in the prefrontal cortex, the bit of the brain responsible for higher cognitive function. Meanwhile, theta waves increased, indicating an increase in decisions made without conscious awareness. The implication? During flow, the subconscious takes over, making decisions based on internalised patterns and move sequences.
Fast decisions: Novel stimulus prompts a multistage decisionmaking process, going from baseline to problem-solving analysis, pre-action readiness, post-action analysis, and back to baseline. Each produces a different brain ‘wave’, but elite performers harness them better, and are able to make explicit decisions (like Umehara handling Wong’s moves) and then instantly switch to the implicit system.
Time dilation: One of the most common expressions of flow is the sense that time slows down. In FMRI experiments, researchers have discovered that this is linked to multiple areas of the brain. “Time is a democratic conclusion reached by the brain,” says Kotler. “Because flow deactivates large parts of the prefrontal cortex, our ability to perceive [time] is distorted.” This also accounts for not ‘hearing’ crowds: as focus tightens, more processing power goes to a smaller range of stimuli.
Feel the love: The neurochemical dopamine is released when we take a risk or encounter something novel, rewarding exploratory behaviour by increasing heart rate, pattern recognition and muscle-firing timing. In a flow state, it’s released alongside endorphins, which relieve pain and produce pleasure just like heroin. That’s why you’re addicted to 2048.
No fear: Finally, the body releases anandamide, a neurotransmitter that elevates mood and amplifies lateral thinking. And once the flow moment’s over, there’s a hit of serotonin – the feel-good hormone that ensures you’ll be back for more.