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.

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