The Science of Flow
Flow science is actually very, very old. Flow science dates back to the 1870s. Some of the very first experiments run in experimental psychology when it was first becoming a field, or in cognitive neuroscience when it was first becoming a field, were run on flow. In 1871 this guy, Albert Heim, he was a Swiss geologist and he went out mountaineering; he was a mountain climber as well. And he went out with his brother and a couple of friends, and they were climbing up the 12th highest peak in Switzerland, in Sandies. And, they got very close to the top, and Albert Heim was crossing a very narrow bridge and his hat flew off his head, and without thinking about it he reached to grab it, tripped, and started sliding towards about a 60-foot cliff, which he hit, and flew off of. He said, when he was in the air, the amount of thoughts that filled his head could have filled an encyclopedia. Time absolutely froze; he started thinking about all his loved ones, and who he had to say goodbye to, an...
d he said goodbye to everybody he loved, and then he realized, well what if I'm alive, maybe I'll have to dig my vinegar out of my backpack to wave it in front of my nose to wake me back up so I can get down ... On and on and on, and when he landed, and he lived, he got very obsessed with this idea. So he went sort of around the globe and he ended up doing a huge survey of people who had survived near-fatal falls. And he wrote a monograph on it called "Remarks on Fatal Falls"; it was the first study in flow ever done, and what he discovered is 96% of the people he interviewed, when they had come close to death, all had this incredible experience of heightened cognitive performance. William James, as I said, first American psychologist, he took this farther from Heim and he started doing deeper experiments into it with Walter Bradford Cannon, who was one of James's students. He was a physiologist; he discovered the fight-or-flight response, and what he discovered is, underneath the fight-or-flight response, when we get really scared, a bunch of different things happen all over the body. He figured out, he was looking at one complete system. So the body is built for this kind of high performance. Maybe, and at that point he thought it was just built for this kind of high performance in crisis situations, and simultaneously the experiences they were looking at, especially when James was looking, the extreme edge of a flow state, a very, very profound shift in consciousness, they thought they were looking at mystical experiences. So until Abraham Maslow came along in the 1950s, most people thought flow was a spiritual experience. Maslow changed this. Maslow, one of the very first positive psychologists, Maslow was doing one of the very first studies in success anybody had ever run. Up to that point, after William James, William James was really interested in kind of the upper possibility space of psychology; Freud came next, and Freud said, "Yeah, not so interesting. "I'm more interested in solving pathological problems "than exploring psychological possibilities." So for the next, basically 100 years, with a couple of exceptions, psychology got focused on treating anxiety, and depression, and mental illness, and things like that that concerned themselves with kind of the lower spectrum of performance and how you make people better, not the upper spectrum. Maslow was different; he was very interested in exploring psychological possibilities. And he was doing one of the first and one of the largest studies of success ever done; he was running around the world interviewing the most successful people he could find: Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, et cetera, et cetera. And what he discovered is, every single successful person he found had found a way to shift their consciousness and put themselves into what he was calling a peak experience at the time; we didn't have the term "flow" yet. But every single successful person he found had found a way to harness flow, to put themselves into flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came along in the '70s, and here's where things really started to shift. Csikszentmihalyi conducted what was, until the Flow Genome Project and my organization beat it fairly recently, the largest study in optimal performance ever conducted. He went around the globe asking tens of thousands of people about the times in their lives when they felt their best and when they performed their best. And he learned five things about flow that are really critical. The first thing he learned, is flow is definable. Flow has seven core characteristics. Actually Csikszentmihalyi came up with 10; it's been revised a little since, now we know there are seven. But these are things I mentioned: the merger of action and awareness, focused concentration in the present moment, time dilation, the vanishing of self, a couple other things. Because it is definable, it is also measurable. There is an extremely well validated psychometric instrument for testing for people who are in flow. It's a questionnaire. We are getting closer to a biophysical based flow detector, to a detector that is able to come off your body and actually tell if you're in flow. But you will, and I'll say this now, various apps online, meditation apps, Mindfulness X, things along those lines, will say this will put you into flow; all of those apps, sometimes they're EEG apps and they're measuring brainwaves, sometimes they're measuring heart rate variability, they're measuring one data point ... Absolute crap; there is no one data point that links to flow. If somebody tells you that they have a device that puts you into flow, they are lying to you. That device does not yet exist. Next thing he discovered is that flow is universal. The state is ubiquitous; it shows up in anyone, anywhere, provided initial conditions are met. In his original study, he found flow in Italian grape farmers, in Navajo sheepherders, in Detroit assembly line workers. If you can find flow on an assembly line, you can ... Has anybody ever worked in a factory? Has anybody ever worked on an assembly line? You failed the thing, of course, right, me too (laughs)! Absolutely sucks, got to be the worst job in the history of the world. All you've got to do is spend the summer in a factory and you'll know you don't want to do that for a living. But if you can find flow on an assembly line, you can find flow anywhere. The next thing, and this is really critical to understanding flow and getting more flow in your life, flow is a spectrum experience. Like any one of our emotions; our emotions are spectrums, right? Take anger, you can be a little bit irked, you can be homicidally murderous: it is the exact same emotion; the amplitude has gone up. Same thing exists with flow. You can be in a state of micro-flow; this when a couple of flow's initial conditions show up. So, time dilation and uninterrupted concentration. The email example, right? When you're focused on the email. It's not a full-blown flow state; it doesn't feel like a mystical experience, but you're very, very focused and you're not aware time is passing, that's a state of micro-flow. On the other end of the spectrum is macro-flow; this is what happens when all of flow's seven core characteristics show up at once at a very heavy level. Macro-flow is so profound people thought it was a mystical experience; that's why they thought it was a mystical experience. The next thing Csikszentmihalyi discovered is that flow is flowy. He coined the term "flow," because when he went around the world talking to people about this state, what he heard over and over and over again is, when I'm in this state, every decision, every action, flows seamlessly, perfectly, effortlessly from the last. Flow is a phenomenological description, which is a big, fancy word for saying this is how it makes me feel on the inside. When I asked you to find the somatic address, we were doing phenomenology there. So it's a phenomenological description of this flow state, and flow feels flowy. Now interestingly, for every action and for every decision to follow seamlessly and effortlessly and perfectly from the last, what has to happen? You have to be in a state of high speed near perfect decision-making. That's the only way for things to be flowy. So if you're looking for a shorthand, mechanistic definition of what flow is, it is a state of high speed near perfect decision-making. Emphasis on "near," not on "perfect." Scot Schmidt, one of the world's first extreme skiers, used to say flow makes you feel like Superman up until the moment you're not, right? So it is not a state of perfect decision-making; that's going to become very critical later. You have to understand that even though it feels like you're Albert Einstein in that moment and you're having the most genius thoughts in the world, not always the case, and you've got to know that going in. Next thing he discovered is probably the most important thing he discovered, is that flow is foundational. It is foundational to happiness and wellbeing, and there's a difference. Happiness, in the moment, how do I feel right now; wellbeing, life satisfaction, meaning, purpose, these things exist over time. And flow is not always correlated with happiness. As we're going to learn, flow usually shows up when you are using your skillset to the max. As a skier for example, oftentimes when I'm in flow, when I'm on the chairlift in between my flow states, my legs are in so much pain I'm nearly crying. It physically hurts; I'm not happy at all, momentarily, but as far as meaning and purpose and overall wellbeing, I'm at the top of my game in those moments. So, not a direct correlation with happiness. Flow may not make you happier in the moment over time, because you are going to be pushing yourself, you are going to be scared, you are going to be taking more risks. But overall wellbeing, life satisfaction and meaning, purpose, those things go through the roof. In his studies, the people who had scored off the charts for overall wellbeing and life satisfaction and the people on the planet who felt they had the most meaningful lives, had the most flow in their lives. After Csikszentmihalyi, after he finished doing this work, people went oh, okay so it's optimal performance. How optimal, what are we actually talking about here, right? The answer is pretty goddamn optimal. We now know, in athletics, pretty much every gold medal and world championship that's ever been won, has a flow state at its heart. In science, in technology, flow is responsible for significant breakthroughs. In the arts, major progress; every major art movement you've ever heard of, doesn't matter the domain, it was kicked off by somebody in a flow state. In business, this is some of the most interesting data; McKinsey, the consultancy, did a 10-year study where they found that top executives in flow are five times more productive than out of flow. Five times more productive is 500% more productive. It means you could go to work on Monday, spend Monday in a flow state, take Tuesday through Friday off, and get as much done as your steady state peers. Two days a week in flow, you are 1000% more productive than the competition; it is a huge boost in productivity. After we started asking questions of, okay, how optimal? The next question we started to ask is, alright, pretty goddamn optimal; where's it coming from? What's going on inside the brain? Luckily, neuroscience, biotechnology in general right now, so are we familiar with Moore's Law? Moore's Law is the exponential growth curve that says that your computers get twice as fast for the same price every year and a half, right? Ray Kurzweil, head of engineering at Google, discovered that once a technology becomes an information technology, meaning ones you can program into ones and zeros of computer code, jumps on the back of Moore's Law and starts accelerating exponentially. Biotechnology has jumped on the back of Moore's Law. Biotechnology is now accelerating so fast it is doubling in power every four months. It's moving at five times the speed of Moore's Law. To put this differently, more personally, this is impacting all of us, and I don't mean in a big picture way, I mean right here, right now; biotechnology is just advancing so fast that every day you manage to stay alive you gain five hours of life expectancy, simply by being alive. To put it differently, the amount of medical knowledge in the world doubles every five years. That's what's going on. This same force is driving neuroscience forward. So for the past 10 to 15 years, we've been able to look under the hood of flow for the very first time, and you're actually looking at me, being one example, I am taking part in this photo in an experiment run by a Stanford neuroscientist, David Eagleman, and we're trying to figure out why time slows down in a flow state. And to figure it out, I've been hoisted 150 feet in the air by a crane, and I'm being dropped and I'm free falling into a circus net 150 feet below me. And I will tell you, we made some progress on this time thing. I will also tell you, six months of chiropractic work, until my neck worked right again (laughing). It was a mess! And it wasn't actually the experiment's fault; it was the fact that we were doing the experiment for Popular Science, and he wanted that photo, and it turns out this device is absolutely perfect if you fall straight into the net; no problems, no injuries. But if you have to look at something on your wrist and you have to tilt your head slightly to do it in midair, and you land with your neck crooked, yeah, not designed to do that!