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Get Into Your Creative Flow

Lesson 12 of 32

Your Brain on Flow

Steven Kotler

Get Into Your Creative Flow

Steven Kotler

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Lesson Info

12. Your Brain on Flow

Lesson Info

Your Brain on Flow

What we learned peeking under the hood of flow is that many of our old ideas about high performance, peak performance, were exactly backwards. And most of you are familiar with the old ideas. What's known as the 10% Brain Myth. This is the idea that in any one time, we're only using a small portion of our brain, say 10%. So optimal performance, aka flow, must be the full brain on overdrive. First of all, that is never the case. Evolution is extremely conservative. It would never, ever waste 90% of your brain. It doesn't work that way, so that's a total joke. But what we learned about flow, is when we move into flow we're not using more of the brain, we're actually using less of the brain. The technical term for this is transient, meaning temporary, hypo-frontality. Hypo, h-y-p-o, it's the opposite of hyper. It's to slow down, to shut down, to deactivate. Frontality refers to the pre-frontal cortex. It's the part of your brain that's right behind your forehead. It's a critical portion o...

f your brain. Pre-frontal cortex governs most of your executive functions. Complex logical, rational decision-making, long-term planning, your sense of morality, your sense of will, also your sense of time. Time, it turns out, is calculated by a whole bunch of different structures in the pre-frontal cortex. As these structures start to wink out, we can no longer perform that calculation. So past, present, and future get conflated into one internal moment, what researchers call the Deep Now. The reason this is happening is the brain is an energy hog. Your brain is 2% of your bodyweight, it uses 20 to 25% of your energy when you're at rest. So just hanging out, not even thinking, your brain is using 25% of your energy. Kick that up a notch, it's taking a whole lot more of your energy. So the first order of business for the brain, what it's always trying to do in every situation, conserve energy, use less energy. What happens when we move into flow, we need massive amounts of energy to focus in the present moment, so the brain starts recruiting energy from all kinds of other structures, anything that is not critical to the present moment, time is not critical to the present moment, when you're right here right now and focused there, you don't need to know past and future, you just need to know what's going on right now. So the brain stops calculating time. Huge impact on flow, huge impact on performance, huge impact on creativity. If you think about your fears, unless you happen to work in a action sports profession or a combat profession, you know the military, very rarely are the things you're afraid of right here right now. Most of our fears are in the past, horrible shit that happened back then, and wanna avoid happening again now, or in the future, things that we're scared about that are coming to. In the present, there's a lot less fear. So as time goes away, what we see is anxiety plummets, stress levels plummet, now knowing how much fear and anxiety impact the brain and impact creativity, you can see one of the reasons creativity goes up so much in flow, is it calms you the fuck down. Simultaneously, by the way I'm gonna swear in this class, I hope I don't offend anybody. (audience laughing) Earmuffs, yeah. I'm not good around children. If you have children in the room at home, you should ask them to leave. I'm saying this from experience. The same thing happens to your sense of self. The "I" behind the eyes, your version of yourself in your head, self is actually another calculation performed all over the pre-frontal cortex. Your sense of self is generated all over the pre-frontal cortex. As parts of it start to wink out, we can no longer generate that sense of self. As a result, our inner critic goes away. Your inner critic is your nagging, defeatist, always-on voice in your head, right? Your inner Woody Allen. When we get into flow, Woody goes silent. Again, huge impact on performance and creativity. Without our inner critic, risk-taking goes way up. Without our inner critic, creativity, because we're no longer doubting all of our good ideas, goes way up. We experience this, we feel it, as a liberation, as freedom. And what you are literally doing is getting out of your own way. At a fundamental neurobiological level when you are moving into flow, you are getting out of your own way. Now, important to know: pre-frontal cortex goes off, we lose certain faculties as well, right? Long-term planning tends to go away. I always tell people don't go shopping in a flow state. Couple of different reasons and we'll talk about why as we go along. Everything looks really great to you, and you also have no long-term planning. So oh yeah, that BMW looks fantastic, how much money do I have in the bank? Right? You lose those faculties so you gotta know that going in. You gotta know you're not always making your best decisions about certain things, because those faculties are shut down. So this is the neuroanatomical changes that happen when we're in flow. If you wanna talk about what's going on in the brain you need to know three things. Neuroanatomy, where in the brain it's taking place, neurochemistry, and neuroelectricity. Neurochemicals and neuroelectrical signals are the two ways the brain communicates with you. How the brain talks to itself. It's how the brain talks to the body, it either does it chemically, or it does it electrically. And we're gonna start by talking about neuroelectricity. So 21st century normal, where we are right now, where we are right now, where your brains are right now, psychologists describe it as "tired, wired, and stressed". What it means is if I were to look into most of the people living in the 21st century, what is your brain look like? A lot of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, hyper-active, steady drip drip of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, and brain waves in the high beta range. So brain waves, beta is one of the fastest moving waves, it's where we are when we're paying attention, more anxiety, more fear. We're also now in higher betas, very jagged, sharp brain waves. Below beta is alpha. Alpha is daydreaming mode, right? And the way you know you're in alpha, is thoughts are linking together without a lot of internal resistance, right? Below that is theta. Theta is where you are when you are falling asleep or if you're a really good meditator. So the hypnogogic state where you're thinking about your gray sweater and suddenly it turns into a gray elephant? That's theta, when ideas can move that quickly. There's one other wave that's important, which is gamma. Gamma's an extremely fast-moving wave and it only shows up during a process known as binding. Binding is fundamental to creatives. Binding is when new ideas come together for the very first time and the brain lays down new neural networks. Gamma spike is the signature of the "Aha!" Moment. When you have a sudden breakthrough, you always see a gamma spike. Now interestingly, flow takes place primarily on the border between alpha and theta. So daydreaming mode, hypnogogic state, you're sort of right in between. Now this is not always where the brain is in flow, but it is the standard baseline. So if you look at e.e.g. studies on people in flow they will bounce all over the place, but they will always find a way to return to flow. In fact, in work done that I talk about in Rise of Superman by my friend Leslie Sherlin, he looked at 5,000 different top athletes. He found that the main thing that they were capable of doing that other people weren't capable of doing is most of us, as we start to make decisions, we bounce all over the place, they'll kick up into beta. Most people get hung-up on their thoughts, right? And get attached to something going on up here. Top performers can drop back down to that alpha-theta line much more quickly. The interesting thing about this is that gamma, the gamma wave I talked about, that signature of the "Aha!" Moment, it's what's known as "coupled," which is a fancy way of saying, "Gamma can only show up when the brain is in theta." The gamma wave emerges out of theta. What this means is, because flow takes place on that borderline between alpha and theta, flow perches you on the edge of "Aha!" Breakthroughs. Big, insightful, oh my god I can't believe moments. Flow hovers right on the edge. So you are much more likely to have those big breakthroughs. When I said earlier flow was responsible for significant progress in the arts and scientific breakthroughs, technological breakthroughs. The brain waves, perched on the edge of the gamma spike, that is why. Simultaneously, to these changes in neural electricity and neuroanatomy, six of the most potent, actually five that we know of and oxytocin shows up sometimes, but five or six of the most potent neurochemicals the brain can produce, all show up in flow. We're gonna talk a lot about these. Dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin. I'm gonna walk you through each of them a little bit. So dopamine does a lot of different things in the brain. It's one of the brain's and the body's principal reward chemicals, it feels really good, it correlates to excitement, similar to norepinephrine. In fact romantic love, when you are falling in love with another person, dopamine and norepinephrine. That is the cocktail that we call romantic love. Now endorphines are essentially painkillers, right? Or social bonding drugs. Anandamide underpins lateral thinking and openness to experience. Our ability to link very far-flung ideas together, be very open. Serotonin is the calming chemical inside of Prozac. Makes you more social and calms you way down. And oxytocin has sometimes been called the "cuddle chemical," it shows up when there is trust between people, but it's not always so cuddling. When you're dealing with tribalism, racism, nationalism, you're also dealing with oxytocin. Now interesting thing about all of these neurochemicals is they are endogenous, meaning internal to the body, drugs. They are all mimicked by exogenous, meaning external to the body, drugs. Dopamine is cocaine. If you've ever done cocaine, all that has happened is the brain has released a massive amount of dopamine into your brain. That's all it does. Norepinephrine is speed. Endorphines are opiates. Just to give you a sense of how potent endorphines are, there are about 20 different endorphines in the brain, the most commonly found one is 100 times more powerful than medical morphine. Very very very potent. Anandamide is the same psychoactive that's inside of marijuana, so THC. When you get stoned, if you're smoking indicas, pure anandamide. If you happen to be smoking sativas, you have a little bit of dopamine on the front end and then it's followed by anandamide push. Serotonin: LSD, mushrooms, ecstasy. Depending on the pathway it takes in the brain. Oxytocin there isn't really a correlate to. I'm telling you all these things because if you happen to have partaken in drugs in your life, knowing how these things feel, knowing how these things make you feel, you have a very significant advantage as a flow hacker. You do. It is really helpful to learn to identify the somatic address of these neurochemicals. Because you know what you're feeling and you know where it's coming from. I'm not advocating drug use at all. So we're not advocating drug use, I am saying honestly, and I really do believe this, if you've done drugs in your life you do have an advantage here. You actually have some internal knowledge that other people don't have. One advantage. So to talk about how flow really impacts cognitive performance, I wanna talk about how these neurochemicals impact all three sides of the so-called "high-performance triangle." Motivation, learning, and creativity. Motivation is where I wanna start. All five or six of those chemicals, besides impacting performance, they are pleasure chemicals. They are pleasure drugs. They are the six most pleasurable drugs the brain can produce, and flow is the only time that we know of where you get all six at once. Think about this, romantic love, which most people will put very high on their list of my favorite experiences, it's two neurochemicals. Flow is five to six. So you get two pleasure drugs is, "I'm falling in love," six is "I'm in flow." Which is why, by the way, soldiers will come back from combat and they will say that the bonds they formed with the people they were in combat with, in flow with, are stronger than the bonds with their wives and their loved ones, and they can't figure out why. It's because combat produces a lot of flow and they're getting five or six of these neurochemicals compared to only a couple that you actually get in love. If your love has persisted over time, you start to get endorphines and some others, but you'll never get all the way up there. The other thing I wanna tell you about these neurochemicals by the way that I should've mentioned a slide back is the other thing that they all do is they're all pro-social chemicals. Pro-social chemicals means they expand our ability to like other people, right? So as I said, norepinephrine, dopamine, that's romantic love. Endorphines and oxytocin are what bind families together, mother to child or friend to friend in adults. But when you're talking about mothers and infants, the strongest bond people talk about, it's pure endorphines. Serotonin, it's a calming chemical, it's why when people take Prozac they become friendlier. It basically makes us feel other people are less threatening, we're less scared around other people. Which is what gets dumped into your system in ecstasy and makes you feel really loving towards other people. Serotonin. Oxytocin I addressed, and anandamide, which shows up in marijuana, makes you much more open to other people and experience and their ideas, right? So these are all pro-social chemicals, we'll come back to why that's important much later. But I wanted to wrap that in. Alright so motivation. You're getting all five of these chemicals at once. Huge reward drugs. Means flow is one of, if not the, most addictive state on earth. What that really means is once an experience starts generating flow, we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of it. Of course researchers, psychologists don't love the term addictive. It's got lots of negative connotations. I will tell you it's actually a positive word and a lot of what we're going to be doing today is we're going to learn to manage addiction. That's what being a good flow hacker is. You're managing very addictive processes in your body. The huge boost in motivation Mackenzie found, right? When they found that productivity went up 500% is because of these pleasure drugs. As I said, scientists don't like calling it addictive, they have other words, autotelic is the term Csikszentmihalyi coined, it means "an end in itself." It means the activity, just doing it for it's own sake is the reward. You're not extrinsically motivated in flow, so instead of autotelic if you don't like that, the term contemporary researchers use more often to talk about flow is the source-code of intrinsic motivation. All of this is just a fancy way of saying, helluva lot of really addictive neurochemistry. That's what's driving motivation, right? That's what's driving you forward and as you guys know as creatives, a lot of what we're trying to do here is hack motivation, right? Is drive yourself forward, get yourself to keep going. Creativity. We talked about it earlier as a recombinatory process. So part of the brain taking in novel information, finding connections between it, using that to birth something startlingly new. These neurochemicals surround the creative process. Norepinephrine and dopamine are focusing chemicals. When they are flowing through our system we take in more information per second. This is really really fundamental. We're getting more data, access to more incoming data than we normally do. Norepinephrine and dopamine do something else. Technically, for anybody who works in tech here, they tune signal to noise ratios. Which is a fancy way of saying we find more patterns in the noise. So this was discovered, it was a fun experiment, or an interesting experiment, by a guy named Peter Brugger, who was a Swiss, still is, Swiss neuroscientist, and what he did is he took images of faces and some of them were authentic faces. Just one person's face. A lot of the images were mix and match faces. So he took a nose from over here, eyes from over here, lips from over here. And they scrambled them together and then they took a bunch of people and they showed them the images. And they said, "Is this a real face, "or is this a scrambled face?" What's authentic? And they gave half of the study group L-DOPA, which is a Parkinson's drug that increases the amount of dopamine in the brain. The people with L-DOPA, with more dopamine in their systems, thought they were seeing more authentic faces. They were noticing way more patterns in the information than other people. Pattern recognition goes through the roof when we have norepinephrine and dopamine flowing through our system. And we've had this experience, right? You've had, so anybody who's done a crossword puzzle or sudoku, right? You get an answer right, you get that little rush of pleasure, right? That's dopamine. The reason you tend to get a bunch of answers right in a row, right, is you get that first rush of pleasure and suddenly there's more pattern recognition so you can solve three or four other answers at the same time. That's what's happening, that's dopamine. That's creativity. So you were taking in more information per second, you were having an easier time finding connections between that idea. Anandamide comes in next. Anandamide helps us find more far-flung connections. It increases lateral thinking. In other words, flow surrounds the brain's information processing machinery. Taking in more information per second, processing it more quickly, processing it more completely, meaning we're using more of our brain to process the information. Lastly, learning. Learning is really really key. Just kind of put it in context. Arie de Geus, who was the head of innovation at Royal Dutch Shell got curious about... So a guy named Jim Collins wrote a really famous business book called Good to Great. Good to Great was about companies that could out-perform the SNP 500 for 15 years. And Collins made a really thorough study of this. Arie de Geus came along and went, "That's kinda cool but I work for Shell "and we've been around for 70 years, "I don't care about out-performing "the SNP 500 for 15 years, I wanna know "what does it take to kick ass "for 100 years? 200 years? 300 years? 500 years?" So he made a study of the world's longest-lived companies, companies that some of them go all the way back 1,000 years old, right? These are companies that have survived Ice Ages, plagues, famines, wars, recessions, depressions, you name it, they've persevered. And he asked the question, "What the hell do they have in common?" What distinguishing characteristics, where do they mix and match. He found one, one characteristic. The ability to learn faster than the competition is the key to long-term success. And I will tell you, in an exponential world where technology is moving that quickly, your ability to learn faster than the competition? More important now than ever. Quick shorthand for learning and memory in the brain: the more neurochemicals that show up with an experience, the better chance that experience will move short-term holding into long-term storage. It's one of the other things neurochemicals do. They're big neon signs, "Important!" "Save for Later!" So if I ask you to close your eyes and think about your favorite memories between ages of zero and 10, or 10 and 20, 30 and 40, take your pick. Chances are you're going to remember flow states. Chances are the answer that's gonna come out of your mouth are going to be... Unless they're kinda peak experiences, I got married, I graduated from high school, I went to prom, whatever that stuff. Almost everything else is a flow state that will pop to your mind. Why? Massive amounts of neurochemistry so those events get seared into your mind. This is very useful. We're gonna talk about how later, but the fact that flow sears itself into your mind, in terms of learning and memory, very very useful to a flow hacker. But what this means is, we've all heard about Malcolm Gladwell's fabled 10,000 Hours to Mastery, right? The Anders Ericsson research. But the research consistently shows that flow can cut it in half. Studies done by friends of ours at advanced brain monitoring working with snipers in flow, they found that snipers could learn target acquisition skills 470% faster than normal. They actually re-did this experiment, they recorded the brain waves of people in flow, and they used an e.e.g. devices to take people who had never shot a gun before, they used long marksmen, arrow shooters, so archers, marksmen, and hand gun shooters. And just by putting their brainwaves into flow they took the time it took for them to get from absolute novice "I've never fired a gun before" to expert marksman, "I can hit the bullseye any time I wanna shoot." Cut it in half. Flow can cut the path to mastery in half. This is massively accelerated performance.

Class Description

Do you want to learn more about flow? Take the Free Flow Profile to find out if you are a Deep Thinker, Crowd Pleaser, Hard Charger, or Flow Goer.

If creativity is already core to your life, then this program is perfect for you. This could mean you’re a copywriter at an ad agency, a scientist hunting a breakthrough, a coder designing software, an entrepreneur dreaming up your next start-up, a writer aching to finish that novel or a landscape painter trapped in the life of an accountant — all that matters is that generating novel ideas (and putting those ideas out in the world in some form or another) is core to your life and purpose.

Why Does “Flow for Creatives” even matter?

  • You keep losing the battle to be innovative in the rush to be productive.

  • You have writer’s block or coder’s block or painter’s block and the thing you used to love most in your life has become a source of pain and frustration.

  • You have trouble managing your emotions and fear keeps getting in the way of your good ideas.

  • You have trouble sustaining momentum on projects and tend to quit early rather than to finish what you started.

  • You have no idea how to gain access to groundbreaking insights and ideas when you need them most.

  • You don’t actually believe creativity is trainable.

  • You’re numbing yourself with substances and placating yourself with distractions as a way to ignore the fact that you’re not living up to your creative potential.

  • You get lost in the fixing to get ready phase, and never get down to business.

  • You keep bashing into creative walls but never breaking thru.

  • Your emotions keeping getting in the way of your desired outcomes. Fear of failure keeps you from committing to projects; perfectionism keeps you from making your work public.

Flow For Creatives can help.

It’s like an inspiration turbo-boost training program. It’s practical, experiential and experimental. You learn a new idea about Flow and Creativity, apply it to whatever problem you’re trying to solve, see what happens, then make it your own.

And, did you know…

  • When in Flow, your creative problem-solving abilities can spike by over 400 percent.

  • Research done at Harvard shows that the heightened creativity produced by Flow can outlast the state by a day, sometimes two—suggesting that Flow actually trains the brain to think more creatively over the long haul.

  • Creatives are more prone to depression than most people, but an understanding of the process can protect against this liability.

  • Creativity tops the list of 21st-century skills—meaning those skills that are essential for thriving in the modern world—yet 75 percent of people think they’re not living up to their creative potential.

  • The baseline brainwave state produced by Flow is also the ready condition for “Ah-ha” insight, meaning being in the zone makes you primed for breakthrough insight.

  • Fear blocks creativity, while Flow resets the nervous system, calming us down so we can avoid burnout and gain access to much-needed insight.

  • Unless you know how to train the brain properly, most people tap into their deepest creative potential at age 5.

  • Frustration is actually a built-in component of the creative process—it’s a sign that you’re moving in the right direction not a sign that you’re going about it all wrong.

Life is better than ever and we are feeling worse than evener. We are neurotic, stressed, unmotivated and it’s literally killing us. This class is for anyone that is serious about staying in their highest performing state.

*Warning: this instructor occasionally uses strong language. Viewer discretion advised*


Jeremy Richardson

I've watched and participated in many webinars and online classes, and this was by far one of the best. The depth and breadth of information that Steven covers in this class is not only really important, but he structures it in a way that is engaging and most importantly: PRACTICAL. I'm coming out of this with a clear list of ways to improve my ability to get into Flow while accomplishing all of my creative endeavors. I highly recommend this to anyone who would like to do the same!


This is amazing. Steven is hitting so many pain point for me about reframing my fear. He is also an amazing presenter. Thank you, Steven! I am excited, I am excited, I am excited!

Isaac Freed

Utterly mind blowing. Wow. A few hours listening to Steven Kotler felt more like a few days. He has done his research, and offers so much practical application advice that I will review this material several times. Well worth it, and highly recommended. Thank you, Creative Live!