Going with the flow, being in the zone, or becoming one with the flow. It’s been the subject of discussion in ancient philosophies from the Taoists to the Stoics. While no one can give you exact instructions on how to achieve it for yourself, the basic explanation of being in “a state of flow” can be explained as a complete merging with whatever you’re doing; the dishes, the basketball game, the painting, or just living.
Some of the reasons why people turn to nootropics is to help them find this state of flow more readily. Flow has such an ambiguous nature, it’s like the thing everyone wants to get to excel—but when you, your brain chemistry, and everything lines up to take you there, it’s likely you won’t even realize you achieved it until you’ve come to its conclusion.
Flow is that feeling you get when the world seems to drop away and all your energy is invested in what you’re actively doing, like when you’re so engrossed in a workout or a presentation that every move you make matches what’s needed in that exact moment, without preconceiving what’s needed next. Everything just seems to fit together without struggle.
What exactly is happening when you’re in a state of flow? Beyond the philosophical interpretations of it, how do we explain why some nootropics can enhance this feeling? A new study tackled these questions by putting people into a state of flow and observing their brain activity through MRI scans to explain what’s going on behind the scenes.
Researchers confirmed that no one particular area of the brain is activated during states of flow. Instead, it’s how easily the regions are able to communicate with one another in a network configuration. Within the network, brain regions can be packed together yet still connect to other regions that are farther away in a modular pattern.
People who are in states of flow are experiencing the results of these modular networks becoming uber-efficient at transmitting data from one to the other when they encounter complex activities, or when people learn to channel the state of flow even during routine activities. The brain can also modify these modular networks as needed so it can maintain flexibility during cognitively demanding tasks. The brain is seeking out the most efficient route and cutting out all the unnecessary connections so that it is streamlined into an undisturbed path.
During the study, 140 participants played either a video game with game controls or a video game on a PC. Their MRI scans revealed that when they were in a state of flow, their brain required much less energy and allowed them to focus on the task at hand without getting distracted. This confirmed previous studies which found that if people focus on just one task at a time, their response time to distractions slows dramatically.
In this way, some nootropics can facilitate a state of flow by enhancing these connections, helping shut out distractions, or relieving stress so you can direct your mind where you’d like your focus to be.
Achieving this state of flow could be a new goal for yourself, or a skill you want to master. If everything seems easier when you’re in a state of flow, you’re right—it’s even easier within your brain.
Richard Huskey, Justin Robert Keene, Shelby Wilcox, et al. Flexible and Modular Brain Network Dynamics Characterize Flow Experiences During Media Use: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. Journal of Communication, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/joc/jqab044