Go with the flow

Extracts from New Scientist 2012

Is there an easy way to prime your brain for awesome efficiency in any skill? ‘Flow’ is the elusive mental state, that feeling of effortless concentration which characterises outstanding performance in all kinds of skills.

According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action.

Flow typically accompanies these actions. It involves a Zen-like feeling of intense concentration, with time seeming to stop as you focus completely on the activity in hand. The experience crops up repeatedly when experts describe what it feels like to be at the top of their game and with years of practice it becomes second nature to enter that state. Some people who experience this state at a far earlier stage in their training seem to be more naturally predisposed to the flow state than others.

This effortless concentration should speed up progress, while the joyful feelings which come with the flow state should make practice much easier, setting up athletes for further success, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University in California. Conversely, his research into the flow state in children shows that, as he put it: ‘Young people who didn’t enjoy the pursuit of the subject they were gifted in, whether it was maths, sport or music, stopped developing their skills and reverted to mediocrity’.

Many researchers have deemed the flow state too elusive a concept to tackle. In the late ‘70’s, Csikszentmihalyi, then a psychologist at the university of Chicago, helped change that view by showing that the state could be defined and studied empirically. He interviewed hundreds of talented people, artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons, chess players and rock climbers. This enabled him to pin down 4key features that characterise flow.

1. An intense and focused absorption that makes you lose all sense of time

2. Auto-telicity – the sense that the activity you are engaged in is rewarding for ‘its own sake’
3. Finding the ‘sweet spot’, a feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated nor bored
4. Automaticity – the sense that the ‘piano is playing itself’ without a great deal of input

Csikszentmihalyi used EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the brain waves of experts during activity. He found that the most skilled players showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is typically associated with higher cognitive processes such as working memory and verbalisation. This may seem counter-intuitive, but silencing self-critical thoughts allow more automatic processes to take hold, which in turn produces the effortless feeling of flow.

Later studies have confirmed these findings and have revealed other neural signatures of flow. Chris Berka and her colleagues at the Advanced Brain Monitoring centre in Carlsbad, California, looked at the brain waves of archers and professional golfers. It was found that a few seconds before the arrow was released or the golf ball contacted, there was a small increase in what’s known as the Alpha band, one of the frequencies that arises from the electrical noise of all the brain’s neurons.

This surge in Alpha waves is associated, Berka says, with reduced activation of the cortex and is always more obvious in experts than novices. Her opinion is that it represents focused attention on the target while other sensory inputs are suppressed. She found these mental changes are accompanied by slower breathing and a lower pulse rate as you might expect from relaxed concentration.

Defining and characterising the flow state is all very well but could a novice learn to turn off his/her critical faculties and focus his/her attention in this way, thus boosting performance? Gabriele Wulf, a kinesiologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, helped to answer this question in 1998 when examining the way athletes move.

At the time she had no interest in the flow state, but she and her colleagues found they could quickly improve athletes’ abilities by asking them to focus their attention away from their body and on to some external point. Young skiers performed better and learned faster when they focused on a point ahead of them instead of on the movements they were executing at the time.

Wulf and her colleagues later found that an expert’s physical reactions require fewer and more economical muscle movements than those of a novice. They also experience less mental strain, lower heart rate and shallower breathing – all characteristics of the flow state. These findings were confirmed by later studies of expert and novice swimmers. Novices who concentrated on an external focus – the water’s movement around their limbs – showed the same effortless grace as those with much more experience, swimming faster and with a more efficient technique. Conversely when the expert swimmers focused on their movements and what they were doing, their performance declined.

Wulf’s findings fit in well with the idea that flow – and better learning – comes when you turn off conscious thought. When you have an external focus, you achieve a more automated control, you don’t think about what you are doing or how you do it, you focus more on the outcome.