Cycle of flow state including struggle, release, flow, and recovery

What does your scientific research have in common with adventure sports? They both have triggers that get you into a focused, zen-like state called flow. This article discusses these triggers in the context of researchers like you.

An elusive state of consciousness

We spoke with Steven Kotler, science writer, director of the Flow Genome Project, and author of “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.” Kotler’s research and writing on the flow state are based on decades of work done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high”), and he views the state of flow through different lenses, including the insane, accelerated achievements in adventure sports.

Kotler describes flow as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best. He writes, “Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts, and performance goes through the roof.” Sound familiar to you?

As a scientist, you may already know about transient hypofrontality—that as focus tightens, the brain stops multitasking and the effect of the efficiency exchange going on deactivates swaths of the neocortex, distorting our ability to compute time. Ever find yourself in the lab at a late hour and wonder where the time went?

While flow may be incredibly desirable, it is also elusive. Over twenty triggers to flow have been identified; but risk is one of the fastest paths to get there, inducing a flood of endogenous neurochemicals that make exogenous opiates look like watered-down fakes. Kotler says adventure sport athletes are better at hacking flow because the stakes are unequivocally higher and it can be a situation of “flow or die.” For you as a scientist, this is the risk equivalent of “publish or perish.”

The science of flow

While athletes rely mostly on environmental triggers, as a scientist you can also access the flow state to up your game. There are environmental, internal, creative, and social triggers to flow; to initiate it, you must first go through four biologically regulating phases:

  1. Struggle: where you amp up focus, so stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine are pumped into your system, increasing focus and helping remove unwanted background. Struggle is probably very familiar to you as a scientist from trying to problem-solve, address setbacks, etc.
  2. Release: where nitric oxide floods your system, signaling stress hormones to decline and making way for the final ingredients of this neurochemical cocktail achieved in the flow state.
  3. Flow: dopamine, endorphins (blocking the pain of long lab hours and that darn stool) and anandamide are released, which helps elicit the lateral thinking to connect the dots that’s so vital to scientific insight.
  4. Recovery: at last, once flow is finally reached you settle into recovery. Serotonin, the “feel good” neurochemical, bonds you with a love for your work and (in group flow) for your team.

To see an illustration of this, check out how some scientists engage the “Release” phase, and how they learn from their observations, connect abstract ideas, and persevere through the cycles of breakthroughs and failures.

See what drives scientists to keep seeking

Why should you want more flow for you and your labmates?

As a scientist, you probably don’t ignore things that can give you an edge to accelerate your research, so why ignore the triggers that quantitatively impact your creativity, motivation, and learning?

Creativity soars in flow, and there can be significant amplification of performance and productivity; this is why the best labs accelerate to become even better. Their ability to utilize individual and group flow and see creative solutions faster, gives them the edge. Facebook, Google, and other companies leverage flow because it impacts creativity and innovation, so of course scientists should access the science of the brain in the quest to accelerate research.

So, what are these triggers and how do you hack flow?

Risk is one, but don’t worry—you don’t need to throw yourself into a 50-foot wave to leverage this trigger. The brain reacts similarly to both physical and emotional risk, so even speaking up in a big meeting or giving a speech at a friend’s party can be enough to induce flow. As a scientist, some risk is already present in the form of the potential loss or gain of peer respect, of resources, of betting on an idea. Also, ask yourself: “Is my lab leveraging the advantage of the ‘fail forward’ culture of Silicon Valley?” If your team doesn’t support the ability to take risks, and you’re not actively incentivizing risk, you may be limiting the ability to get flow going in the lab. As a lab, you share goals and there is already some risk; but are you tapping in to the advantage of group flow, like a jamming jazz band?

Kotler says, “Increase the novelty, unpredictability, and complexity in your environment, and as a result flow, innovation, and creativity will increase as well.” As a scientist you may be thinking: Are you crazy? I need less, not more, unpredictability and complexity. But consider this. As a supplier of tools to you, we at Thermo Fisher Scientific are trying to reduce unpredictability and complexity. We hope this opens the opportunity for you to find novelty—for example, by stepping out of habits and routines once in a while. Autopilot and routines have their place (for example, when you’re performing PCR for the 1,000th time), but they won’t get you to the flow state. Look for opportunities to try something new (like trying magnetic beads instead of slurry for your immunoprecipitation), which forces you to think about getting to the result in a different way. Kotler says that even brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand will help get you going in the right direction, so try pipetting with your opposite hand. Essentially, going against the grain demands new focus and ups the degree of novelty.

One of our favorite flow hacks is leveraging free-writing. Write out a challenge or question you have with actual pen and paper. Then go do something completely different and relaxing that requires focus away from the question—slackline, yoga, or guitar. Then come back to your question and write, without stopping, everything that comes to mind no matter how it sounds in your head. Release is all about taking your mind off the problem. Michael Jordan practiced like crazy but often played golf before a big game.

Altruism, also known as “helper’s high,” is another trigger. Simply helping out a labmate can move you toward flow.

Knowledge is power; and if flow strengthens optimal performance, then understanding the triggers of flow—both where it comes from and why it comes—can help you achieve optimal performance more often. There are over twenty triggers of flow, and many are a great fit for use in the lab.

Learn about the Flow Genome Project 

Reference: The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Steven Kotler, 2014