Flow is described as a state of timelessness, energized focus, and full involvement and enjoyment for a specific process. Originally described by Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it is a term used frequently at the highest echelons of any industry.
The original book from Csikszentihalyi was published in the 1990s and many psychologists and peak performance experts have since infused modern technology and neurochemistry in the topic.
One such researcher is Steven Kotler, the bestselling author of The Rise of Superman, who works with many organizations to not only better understand flow, but reverse engineer this mental state and use it on command.
By understanding what goes on in our brain when we naturally achieve a flow state, we can better supplement with nootropics to achieve peak performance artificially.
What’s Possible in a Flow State?
If you have ever “felt” great about your work or had a day where things just fell into place, this is the sensation of flow that we are trying to replicate. Although most people have experienced this before and know what it feels like, our subjective opinion of a flow state is hard to quantify.
Luckily, there is plenty of research to indicate flow states do actually make drastic differences for our brains.
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the secretive scientific wing of the U.S. military) studied how flow could improve sniper capabilities and learning. To achieve this, scientists used transcranial stimulation of military snipers and found their acquisition of skills was improved by 230%.
Another study showed that increasing flow could reduce the time it took for novice snipers to become experts by up to 50%. Imagine how much more you could achieve when learning at these increased speeds.
Learning isn’t the only cognitive enhancement that comes from flow states. Creativity, one of the most elusive and important skills in a modern globalized economy, is inextricably linked to flow states. An Australian study showed although none of their subjects could solve brain teasers normally, around 40% could solve the puzzle when in a flow state.
Whether you are an entrepreneur with a small business, a student fighting for the top spot in university, or a professional trying to get ahead of your peers, creativity is one of the most important skills.
The best aspect of flow, whether we desire to believe it or not, is that flow makes us happier. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research (which was one of the most extensive in the world), flow is the secret to a happy and fulfilling life.
The Brain Chemistry of Flow
With the advent of fMRI and EEG technology, scientists and peak performance experts can see what is going on in our brain when we are in a state of flow. According to expert Steven Kotler (skip to ~38:45 in the video), some of the chemicals needed are:
Both dopamine and norepinephrine help to increase processing speed of information coming into your brain while also amplifying pattern recognition.
The anandamide helps with lateral thinking and long-distance connections within the brain.
In the video above, Steven Kotler creates a novel concoction for inducing a flow state:
- 20 – 25 minute run
- Cup of coffee
- Smoke a joint (marijuana)
Through this concoction you could mimic the majority of the neurochemistry in a flow state. While it won’t work over time (and some elements are illegal) this could be a quick option, but using nootropics may help to achieve a similar state.
Nootropics for Flow
Achieving a flow state doesn’t need to be difficult (or illegal). No need to do a run if you wouldn’t like to. Here are some nootropic options to get you started:
Caffeine and L-Theanine – Like Steven Kotler’s recommendation, you can use the caffeine for both adrenaline and dopamine. This is a highly basic and well researched nootropic stack and quite affordable as well.
The 1-2-Go combines these two ingredients plus theobromine, which is a vasodilator (meaning it opens up the blood vessels) to counteract caffeine (a vasoconstrictor). Together, these three ingredients can help you more easily fall into a flow state. You can read more about caffeine and L-theanine here.
L-Tyrosine – Amino acids are needed to sustain life and although most people immediately think of muscle, these amino acids also help form neurotransmitters. L-tyrosine is responsible for producing dopamine, which is why supplementing can increase focus and concentration (symptoms of more dopamine), but without the caffeine.
Many people want to find sustainable ways of entering a flow state with nootropics and, as Kotler describes, over time the caffeine will not work. L-tyrosine can be a quick replacement to cycle between.
Hordenine HCl – When pairing L-tyrosine (a dopamine producing drug) with an adrenaline inducing one, you have two of the major chemicals associated with a flow state.
Hordenine HCl is somewhat unknown, but what we do know suggests it is an adrenaline reuptake inhibitor, which leaves more adrenaline in your brain and blood.
Phenylethylamine – Another pairing some people find helpful for focus, concentration, and achieving a sense of flow is the hordenine HCl option mentioned above combined with phenylethylamine. This is a powerful mood modulator (dopamine and adrenaline), which can have a strong focusing effect.
L-Deprenyl – While we wouldn’t recommend using a pharmaceutical grade flow agent, L-Deprenyl seems like a novel drug for the purposes of inducing flow. Not only does it modulate dopamine, but it is being used as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, helps improve learning, and has life-span benefits as well.
Again, most of the research is unconfirmed or preliminary and we do not recommend running out and purchasing L-deprenyl. It is a novel drug for these purposes nonetheless.
Achieving Your Peak Flow State
There are a host of factors that are involved with a flow state, which include an environment fit for concentration, a challenging task, and a task just outside of your comfort level. While there is no quick fix, modern science is showing us what brain chemistry looks like while in flow so that we can replicate it ourselves.