Imagine this conversation:
"So why do you love surfing/ mountain biking / snowboarding so much?"
"Well, to be honest, I just love it when my brain waves shift frequency from beta to the alpha-theta zone, and activity in my dorso lateral prefrontal cortex is suppressed and my basal ganglia fires up. It makes me do stuff amazingly well, and it feels so good. I love that!"
Thats a conversation that will never happen. But if aliens came to earth, and looked into why these strange humanoids were grinning idiots during and after snowboarding, surfing, skiing, playing... and they analysed what was going on in our heads, that's what they would find. That's basically what happens to our brains when we are in the flow state.
It turns out that a lot of things happen to our brains in flow, so lets tackle this topic over a couple of posts. In the next post we will look at the neuro-chemistry angle. In this article we start with looking at the Neuro- electric side of flow.
We have 5 main brainwaves which each correlate to a different state of consciousness. These are each labelled according to the Greek alphabet which confusingly, is not in the same order as ours. In ascending order of slow to fast brain waves we have:
- Delta-1.0-3.9 Hz- This is the zone for deep dreamless sleep. If you look at a graph this is the flattest, slowest wave. ie the wave with the longest gaps between electrical pulses. Delta is experienced in deep, dreamless sleep and in very deep, transcendental meditation. Delta is the realm of your unconscious mind, where information received is otherwise unavailable at the conscious level.
- Theta- 4.0-7.9 Hz- This is the zone present during deep meditation and light sleep, including during REM, where we have our most vivid dreams. This is a zone related to the subconscious, and we all pass through it momentarily as we drift off to sleep from Alpha and wake from deep sleep (Delta). Theta is also related to insight and processing of new stimuli. Some people say that a sensations of interconnectedness can be experienced at Theta, as well as vivid visualizations, creativity and exceptional insight. This is the flow zone.
- Alpha-8.0-13.9 Hz- This is the brains resting state, the zone for deep relaxation. People in Alpha are relaxed and calm, conscious of their surroundings without too much conscious thought going on. Some say this is the optimal zone in which to program the mind for success, as it is the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious mind. Some have also linked Alpha to the voice of your intuition, which apparently stregthens as you move closer to alpha-theta border. This border zone, from 7Hz to 8Hz, is claimed by some to be the optimal range for visualization, mind programming and using the creative power of your mind- the state of mind in which you can consciously create your reality. This is also the flow zone
- Beta- 14-30 Hz- Beta brain waves are associated with normal waking consciousness and a heightened state of alertness, logic and analysis. As you can see, 14-30Hz is by far the widest range, so there is a wide divergence in low beta and high beta. Low beta is related to effective functioning including learning, concentration, judgement, critical reasoning. The high end is related to stress, anxiety and restlessness.
- Gamma- above 30Hz. This is the most recently discovered and least researched state. This state shows up as the most spiky image on an EEG graph. Relatively little is known about this state of mind, but initial research shows Gamma waves are associated with bursts of insight and high-level information processing. Researchers have described this type of information processing as "binding" - when various areas of the brain combine disparate thoughts into a single idea.
So what does this have to do with Flow states?
The Alpha-Theta border area of around 8 Hz is recognised as being the signature wave state for flow states. This is unsurprising given that one of the standout hallmarks of flow is the absence of conscious thought. Many people have defined their "flow state" experience as a zone where things happen automatically, so it stands to reason that it occurs at the Alpha-Theta brain wave, the border between the conscious and the subconscious.
Alpha and Theta are also the brain waves most commonly associated with meditation, and as many people have noted before, flow sometimes feels like meditation. Its fascinating that the voice of intuition has been linked to this same alpha-theta border, and it confirms my belief that synchronicity and flow are extremely connected.
There is also a fascinating connection between flow and creativity that EEG tests have highlighted. It has to do with the Gamma waves. I read about this in Steven Kotler's book, Rise of the Superman. One of the reasons why there is such a strong connection between flow and creativity is that flow occurs in Alpha-Theta zone, and this is the only brain wave zone in which Gamma waves can occur. Gamma and Theta are paired brain waves so Gamma only happens when someone is in Theta. Gamma waves bind together ideas from far ranging areas of our brain, connecting memories, experience and new stimuli into creative action.
Therefore, flow states from the perspective of brain wave activity can be seen to be a zone where we can access our subconscious to make rapid decisions. But amazingly it is also a state where we can combine rapid decisions with creative insight.
Speed + creativity=ultimate performance.
Flow and Anti-flow in daily life
So what can we take from all of this to add more flow into our lives? Understanding the basics of how our brain works can give us a fresh perspective when we are in certain negative behavioral patterns and moods. The next time you are over thinking a problem and it is stressing you out, recognise that your brain is in high Beta. Recogise that low Beta is extremely powerful as a zone where logical reasoning occurs. But once you shift past this, into high Beta we are stressed out and therefore very unlikely to make good decisions. I guess we could call Beta the "Anti-flow zone". Scientifically speaking, you will only think in a certain way while in this zone and access information from certain areas of your mind. You won't be able to access your subconscious, you won't be able to use your intuition and you will be far less able to have creative breakthroughs.
However, if you can do anything that will subtlely slow your brain waves down to around 8 Hz, into the zone of Alpha-Theta, the border of conscious and subconscious thought, your brain will now be able to access the vast powers of insight, intution and creative thinking that is beyond the reach of the conscious mind. This is the flow zone.
Don't just Breathe- be aware of your Breathing!
From a neuro-electric standpoint, tweaking our brains into the flow zone involves doing anything that will slow our brain waves. The most time-tested, proven method for doing this is simple observation of your breathing and meditation. That's why when you are feeling freaked out by the enormity of tough decision making, it really does help to just close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. You are changing the electric activity of your brain. Remember that this is a method to slow your brain waves, so as well as breathing make sure you focus your mind on your breath. There is no point closing your eyes, breathing and continuing to think about the problem. This would be ignoring the goal of shifting from beta to alpha. Just focus on your breathing the rhythm, the sensations... do it for a few minutes if you can. Afterwards, you may well find a little gift from your subconsious... the answer to your problem, clear as day.