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Many people would probably first guess that during the flow state the powerful thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex (front part of the brain), would be functioning in overdrive, keeping up with all the demands at an incredibly high speed. It may, therefore, come as a surprise to many of you that this is not the case. Despite its incredible power, the prefrontal cortex is ‘barely’ active whilst we are performing at our best.
To give you a brief overview of cognitive neuroscience, the latest scientific insights suggest that we have two cognitive systems. The slow (i.e., explicit or cold cognition) system, responsible for much of our reflective and conscious thinking, and the fast (i.e., implicit or hot cognition) system responsible for much of our automated behaviour and subconscious activity—intricately linked with our motor cortex it is hard wired to our movement.
It is important to understand that the slow system (i.e., explicit or cold cognition), which is associated with our prefrontal cortex, is not completely deactivated during flow but it is minimized to a lower required energy expenditure. It has to remain active to steer the boat and focus attention; it can’t just be flipped off like a switch. But, only a little activity is enough for it to direct attention and add a level of reflexivity in our decision making.
In fact, our two cognitive systems are always working in parallel, for example, during a conversation with someone our slow system is mainly at play, thinking through what to say and processing the words we hear, we may unconsciously (fast system) bring our coffee cup to our mouth.
Another example of the importance of this ability to function in tandem is when, for example, a football team is in flow. In order to recall their rehearsed strategy and implement it, they obviously require a minimal input from the working memory processes and executive functions of the slow system to think and direct behaviour. However, aspects which change real time, moment-to-moment, such as player positioning and capitalising on opposition mistakes and weaknesses require the work of the fast system to respond in real time. Or, for example, whenever an open space is created in the opposition's space, football players run into that space without even thinking about it; because they have been trained to do so and therefore on the pitch unconsciously guided by their intuition and training.
As you can see, for an optimal performance, these two cognitive systems must be working together. The fast system would be aimless and its abilities would be to waste without some slow system interference, whilst the slow system would end up in analysis paralysis without fast system activity..
It helps to view optimal performance through the lens of optimal efficiency. When efficient, extra cognitive capacity can be shared amongst resources and we can apply ourselves in a more able manner. That is why in our maximum efficiency mode, as we are in flow, in order to conserve energy and minimise interference, we down-regulate the slow system—at such rapid decision-making and movement the slow system is just not needed as it is normally. During this state of transient hypofrontality, the slow system is able to steer (or guide) the fast system without necessarily taking over conscious control and hijacking the entire experience.
During any state, however, the slow system is not retired, like many misinterpretations of transient hypfrontality would suggest, rather at any time, it can be momentarily activated to integrate cognitively complex intricacies into our thoughts—helpting to steer the fast system to execute and perform certain demands.
Striking this balance is difficult, which is why achieving optimal functioning is not easy, but when we do it is extremely rewarding. The scientific name for this dynamic use of our dual processing systems in flow is called transient implicit-explicit synchronisation (TIES).
We refer to an analogy for this process, the ‘onion peeling’ effect. The deeper one sinks into flow, the slow system consequently and gradually loses unnecessary higher executive functions which may interfere with our decisions and slow us down—if you recall, the slow system is very critical, doubtful, and analytical, all of which can cause us to hesitate or slow down our decision making, which is why the brain chooses to minimise this activity.
To be specific, when attention is hyper-focused on the present moment, the highest executive layers of consciousness are the first to go as we decide to allocate that energy elsewhere. Additionally, as the thinking brain, or medial prefrontal cortex, becomes inhibited, so does the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a group of brain regions and is also known as the self-awareness network. It monitors much of our experience. If you like to meditate, you may have heard about some of the recent research that suggests that DMN activity is reduced during meditation when compared to control conditions. As the layers of the onion are peeled away (i.e., higher executive functions and DMN activity), you become more absorbed, you feel that your awareness and action merge into one, time transforms, and we experience a lack of reflective self-consciousness. Characteristics that are the hallmark of flow experiences.
It is thought that when we become more immersed into the performance, the sense of self and self-related thoughts disappear. The usual waking experience of being aware of how we might look or what other people may think of us, vanishes. ‘Me’ retires itself, whereas the volitional ‘I’ remains. We are only left with the present-orientated form of self, which directs our intention during flow, and wields our intuition. With this manner of operating, we can experience an incredible sensation of freedom, empowerment, and connectedness.
Without this usual strong sense of ‘me’ (self), or hypo-egoism as it’s called in the trade, we feel deeply connected and for a few moments we can feel at one with our equipment as if the tennis racket and our arms are one, or as if the keyboard and our fingers are one. This ‘onion peeling’ effect is why flow is often described as a transformational or ‘out of body’ experience, one of ‘self-transcendence’.
It is not so much that we illuminate to a higher being, rather our usual mental grip on reality (that typicaly holds us back and diminishes our experience) diminishes. When we are detached from our normal conscious way of operating our experience transforms.
Many people are not aware that the flow state is not just about performance and productivity, but also an incredibly therapeutic, fulfilling, and liberating experience. One which, like meditation, can free you from your usual conscious state of functioning and open your mind to new possibilities.
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