Hack Your Flow: Understanding Flow Cycles, with Steven Kotler

We now know that flow works not like an on-off switch but in a four-part cycle. Understanding these cycles can help you to more often access flow.

Steven Kotler:  Flow Genome Project – what we’ve discovered when people want more flow in their lives, the number one thing we can tell them is that there is a flow cycle. So the old idea about flow was that it was a binary. It was like a light switch. You were either in the zone or you were out of the zone. What we now know is that flow is a four part cycle and you have to move through all four parts of the cycle before you can return to the flow state itself. The neurobiology of the flow cycle and the actual research came out of Herb Benson’s work at Harvard. He kind of laid the foundation for it. But what we’ve discovered is at the front end of the flow state there’s a struggle phase. This is a loading phase. You are loading, then overloading the brain with information. For a baseball player this is learning to swing a bat at a ball. For a writer planning a new book. This is when you’re doing interviews. This is when you’re reading, it’s when you’re diagramming structure and things like that. It’s very unpleasant as a general rule. So even though flow may be the most desirable and pleasant state on earth, the actual flow cycle itself starts with a very unpleasant state known as struggle.

From struggle you move into release. This literally means you want to take your mind off the problem. So what happens in flow is we are trading conscious processing which is slow, has very limited RAM, right, the working memory can only hold about four items at once, and is very energy inefficient. For subconscious processing which his extremely fast and is very energy efficient and has pretty much endless RAM. So to do that you have to move from struggle, you have to let – stop thinking about what you were trying to think about basically. You take your mind off the problem, you go for long walks, gardening works very well, building models works very, very well. Albert Einstein famously used to row a boat into the middle of Lake Geneva and stare at the clouds, right. Once you can take your mind off the problem and, by the way, one of the only things that you can’t do to move through release is watch television. It actually changes your brainwaves in a way that it will block flow. But once you move from release there’s actually underneath the surface neurobiologically there’s a global release of nitric oxide which is a gas of signaling molecules found everywhere in the body. This flushes all the stress hormones out of your system and replaces them with kind of feel good performance enhancing neurochemicals like dopamine and anandamide and serotonin and endorphins which underpin the flow state as well. You’re in the flow state. This is the third stage in the struggle. And on the back end of the flow state there is actually a recovery phase. And this is really, really, really critical. So you go from this amazing high of flow to a very deep low that shows up in recovery. A lot of this is that all those feel good neurochemicals have drained out of your system.

It takes certain vitamins and minerals and sunlight and things like that to rebuild them. So the recovery phase on the back end of the flow state is actually very, very unpleasant as well. And if you really want to hack flow you need to learn how to struggle better and you need to learn how to recover better. And one of the most important things in recovery is you have to – you need some emotional fortitude, some grit. You have to basically hold on to your emotions, not get stressed out at the fact that you know longer feel like Superman. And the main reason – well two reasons for this is one, if you get too stressed out and feeling low you’re going to start producing cortisol. A little bit is fine, too much of it blocks the accelerated learning that comes with flow. So you will actually get the short term benefit of the flow state itself but you won’t get the long term benefit, the accelerated learning that you get in flow. The other problem is if you have to move from recovery back into struggle and you’re bummed out at no longer being in flow during the recovery phase, it’s very hard to get up for the difficult fight of struggle that follows.



Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


 

 

We now know that flow works not like an on-off switch but in a four-part cycle. Understanding these cycles can help you to more often access flow. The parts of the cycle are as follows: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. To hack flow, explains Kotler, you have to learn to struggle better and recover better.

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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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