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Can Flow be taught?

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

One aspect I enjoy while training for an ultra trail is the 6-10 hours run/hike in the mountain necessary to prepare the body and mind for 20+hours of effort over significant climbs & descents. I love catching the sunrise, the feeling of being “alone” in nature, the fresh air, the views. In addition, these long training sessions provide the opportunity to explore and experience a specific state of mind called “Flow”. Originally named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970s, the concept of flow state, also known as being “in the zone”, referred to a mental state in which we are deeply focused and enjoying the process of an activity, often resulting in the alteration of our sense of time. After decades of studying and interviewing musicians, artists, athletes and even surgeons, Csikszentmihalyi found that a state of flow often heightens creativity, performance and even fulfillment, leading to a richer quality of experience. However, Flow remained a black box, an intriguing phenomena accessible only to few through subjective experience.

As summarised by Steven Kotler in his book on flow “ The Rise of Superman” – over the past decade, scientists have made enormous progress on understanding Flow. Progress in brain imaging technologies, neurology and biochemistry have identified neural networks associated with Flow as well as a combination of natural neurochemicals, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin, involved in improving muscle reaction times, attention, pattern recognition and lateral thinking.

These recent findings have led to renew interests in Flow from a wide variety of organisations interested in peak human performance (e.g. NavySeals, Google, Goldman Sachs, Red Bulls) and the development of training programs with the view that what was once a black box accessible to few could be taught to the many. Despite the significant improvements & results claimed by these training programs and the overall enthusiasm from many of the world top-notch organisations, I remain puzzled of the efficacy of these programs.

In my experience, entering Flow is similar to falling asleep in the sense that it happens naturally under the right conditions and the more one tries to fall asleep the less likely he will. Knowing about the neurology and biochemistry is great but in my view won’t help making it happen. Furthermore, like meditation, trying to enter Flow for a purpose (e.g., being more creative, productive, faster, more agile, etc..) pretty much guarantee that you won’t achieve that state because Flow required being totally immersed & focused in the activity at hand, so as soon as there is an ulterior motive it’s likely to fail.

That said, understanding the flow triggers is useful to increase our awareness. I noticed that I’m most able to enter a flow state when I’m running on narrow, fairly steep descending, trails – I feel I’m one with my surrounding, in a sort of dance, totally loosing the sense of time, just hearing my breathing. Looking back at the research, going downhill on trails presents some of the key triggers – it requires absolute focus & full immersion in a rich environment where you push your limits and the stakes are fairly high (crashing hurts!).

So far it happens but I can’t trigger it voluntarily. To me, it remains one of these awesome states to experience and paradoxically trying to « hack » it to enhance performance may lead to fewer people having the opportunity to enjoy it.

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