I couldn’t figure it out.
I racked my brain for days with nothing to show for it. It was starting to look like I would never finish the design.
For several weeks, I had been working out the details of a product I was hoping to invent. It was going well until I hit a wall with the design. It was my first foray into the world of product development and online retail, and thankfully, I was learning a lot.
My fiancée Megan even taught me to use the sewing machine so I could prototype the product myself.
But all my progress grinded to a halt as I struggled with the design. It was getting late and I was exhausted. I decided to read for a few minutes to clear my head.
Later, as I got ready to go to sleep, something suddenly caught my attention out of the corner of my eye: a small scrap of fabric.
At first, nothing happened.
But in the blink of an eye, my brain turned on like a jet firing its afterburners. I grabbed a pen and watched in amazement as the problem disappeared and the design materialized on the page.
Time seemed to slow down. Colors seemed brighter and I had a strong sense of clarity. I felt electric, invincible. I hadn’t felt this good for months.
I was in a “flow state” and it felt incredible. My Meniere’s symptoms had disappeared.
Being in the Zone
One of the most exciting things I’ve come across in the last couple of years is the research into the consciousness state of peak performance, commonly known as the flow state.
I was surprised and delighted to find that the rare and incredible feeling of “being in the zone” that I have experienced from time to time throughout my life, actually had a name. But more importantly, learning how to have these flow state experiences more often has had a profoundly positive effect on my Meniere’s disease.
So let me back up for a second and define a couple of things.
First off, it will be helpful to understand what a flow state is. The term “flow state” was originally coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his groundbreaking book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research set out to discover the fundamental underpinnings of happiness and creativity in the human experience. He was intensely fascinated by artists who became so lost in their work that they would forgo food, water, and sleep.
Throughout his research, he discovered that many people, from all walks of life, often reported a similar set of experiences and described them as being some of the happiest and most fulfilling moments of their lives. In interviews, Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Most people have experienced this, or something similar, at some point in their lives. When you find yourself so in the zone that time seems to slow down or speed up. Your ability to focus becomes intensely amplified. Your senses become heightened, and you become totally immersed in the present moment. Your brain feels as though it has been supercharged.
Sometimes it’s as simple as getting lost in conversation with an interesting person, or being so absorbed in a book that hours passed in what felt like minutes. Other times, it can feel almost transcendental or even mystical in nature. I didn’t know these experiences were replicable. I was intrigued.
The Science of Flow
In his best-selling book The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler explains that during flow states, our brain releases a potent neurochemical cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, and anandamide. All of these are strong performance-enhancing chemicals.
For a long time, scientists believed that during a flow experience, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is more active than usual. Given the massive boost in performance found in the flow state, this would make sense as the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for high level cognitive function. But amazingly, the opposite is true. “‘We had it backward,’ he says. ‘In flow, parts of the PFC [Prefrontal Cortex] aren’t becoming hyperactive; parts of it are temporarily deactivating. It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.’”
Steven Kotler’s organization The Flow Genome Project has been researching flow states for years, and identifying what happens in the brain during flow was only the beginning. They also discovered replicable flow state triggers, conditions that increase the number of instances of flow in a person’s life. I will cover these in detail in an upcoming post, but first, you need to understand the connection between flow and chronic illness.
Kotler’s journey into the science of flow states wasn’t intentional, at least at first. It was the result of an incredible life-changing experience he had, as he fought for his life against Lyme disease.
Remarkably, Kotler attributes his miraculous recovery entirely to flow states, and devoted his life to studying their inner workings.
Whether you have Meniere’s disease, or any other chronic illness, Kotler’s experience and work with flow states can have a profoundly positive effect on your health and well-being.
In parts 2 and 3 of this series, I will share Steven Kotler’s story, and teach you how to have these incredible flow experiences in your own life.