February 17

Psychologists and Neuroscientists Explain The Flow

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Reading time 4 min.

Spirituality has been making an interesting comeback in recent years, or perhaps an entrée into the mainstream, with a new generation of young gurus and “ spirit junkies” making it hip to be spiritual. Many of the lessons draw from religious tradition, yogic philosophy and meditation, and the idea of a greater, or universal, consciousness. One concept that’s been central, now and in some traditions over the millennia, is the idea of getting out of our own way, or giving up control to some higher power/consciousness/energy, whatever that may be. In other words, being “in the flow.”

But what’s really fascinating about this idea is that it’s not actually specific to spirituality: many people talk of feeling, under the right conditions, like they’re in the flow, as if something greater has taken over and they’re simply letting it happen. Writers, artists, musicians, designers, athletes, and many others have experienced this state of flow, or being in the zone.

So what’s actually happening when we find ourselves in the flow? Do we need to understand this from a spiritual perspective, or can we explain it using what we know about human behavior and the human brain? To figure this out, I asked a psychologist and a neuroscientist, both of whom not only have expertise in their own fields, but who also each happen to have extensive knowledge of various philosophies, religions and practices throughout human history.

Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, makes a couple of points about what’s likely going on when we get out of our own way and into the flow. The first comes from looking at the other end of the spectrum—when we’re stressed, which might be considered the polar opposite of “flow.” He points out that at these times, our thinking starts to suffer, sometimes in significant and bizarre ways. We tend to look for patterns where there are none, and draw conclusions that don’t exist.

“A lot of research looks at what happens when you’re stressed,” he says. “The study that I like a lot is the one looking at Israeli paratroopers – they had them look at these pictures that look very fuzzy. In first one, you can clearly see through fuzz, an image of Saturn. In the next, there’s nothing there, just fuzz. If you give these paratroopers these two diagrams, they see Saturn, and most will say, ‘I don’t see anything’ in the other. But if they take the test right before they do a jump, they’re much more likely to see something in the one where there is nothing.”

This is very much like what’s happening when we’re going out about our daily lives, stressed out, trying to control things in that tense, clenching way. “We end up looking for patterns where they don’t exist,” says Michaelis, “which are physical manifestation of stress. We’re pattern-seeking creatures. But the idea is to come from the outlook of, ‘there may or may not be a pattern, but I’m not going to worry about it.’ So first, you get out of own way by not making situation worse.”

The other point he makes is that we’re a species who, when we’re young, are helpless and rely on other people to survive—doing so is built in, and it actually feels really good. This may be part of why surrender (to anything outside ourselves—a caregiver, a greater power, etc.) feels secure. “We’re an altricial species,” says Michaelis. “We’re wired for this, we’re pretty much useless at birth. We have to give up control to other people, or we die. So in fact we’re wired to give up control—to trust others to have more knowledge than us.” So again, there’s something intrinsic about relinquishing control, that’s not only a necessity but actually kind of delightful and stress-relieving.

The final point he makes is bizarrely brilliant: He says that same delight in letting go also exists when we’re witnessing great art unfold. “It’s like television writing,” he says. “It’s so good these days that you can relax into it, and even give some leeway when an episode isn’t so good—you know it’ll be better down the line. It’s like, ‘Ok, I can relax’.” It’s that uncanny secure feeling of relaxing into the aptitude of another.

These are some really valuable psychological takes on the phenomenon. But what would a neuroscientist say? Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, who’s done some of the leading research on how meditation affects the brain, offers an interesting analogy for our usual way of being: “The simplest metaphor is that it’s like driving a car with one foot on the break and one on the gas,” he says. “In the analogy, the gas is our brains’ the natural function, and the brake is self-referential processing. If you take foot off the break, the brain functions more effortlessly. Our brain is like ‘thank god, you got out of the way.’” And that’s when we get into the flow.

Brewer has talked about this phenomenon (see his TEDx talk here) and his research, which has shown that meditation quiets the areas of the brain that are the equivalent to the “brakes”—the default mode network (DMN)—which helps us get into a flow state very quickly. He adds that to get out of our own way, and even out of more significant states, like depression, you have to utilize other methods besides your usual mode of thinking: What got us into this mess can’t get us out, he says. “Here’s the paradox: You’re the problem. You can’t solve the problem with the same consciousness that created it. Saying to yourself, ‘I’m going to make myself one with the universe’ is a futile task. It’s just like someone telling you to relax. It doesn’t work. We naturally let go, when we see how painful our usual process is.”

He acknowledges that there’s a place for “the universe prompt,” as he calls it—the idea of consciously giving in to something bigger. “Every religious tradition that I’ve seen has something like this, just with different words. It’s letting go of the small self, so grace of god can flow through us. ‘Advaita vedanta’ [from the Upanishads]; in Catholicism, it’s emptying so god can flow. The universe prompt is helpful,” he adds, “where I realize I don’t need to do anything. That can be part of the work, but it’s not all of it.”

As to whether flow is our natural state, or the product of being in tune with something greater, he says this. “Does something (like the universe or God) need to be creating something that is our natural propensity? In other words, what makes water flow downhill (instead of uphill)? Our brain has evolved for efficiency. ‘Flow’ is likely a manifestation of the brain working in optimal conditions.”

So it may be that spirituality is a kind of psychological tool we use just to get ourselves into our natural state. Perhaps quantum physics or other disciplines will offer other revelations in the coming years, but till then, we have to look to our current ways of understanding—psychology and neuroscience. Which may really be all we need. But for some, part of the beauty may be that it is still a mystery, and we can’t quite explain it just yet.

Comments

Leave your questions here

To write a comment you must
or
Services
Category filter
Concern filter
Type filter
Sort
 
All categories
Shamanic Healing
$10 USD
Light the Path to Your Desired Life

If you want find what is that in life that makes you happy and fulfilled you need to heal all levels of your existence- Body, Mind, and Spirit. We are all ener…

Change Naturopathy
New Zealand flag icon
Emotional Freedom Technique
$10 USD
The Power Of Emotional Healing - EFT Program

“The Power of Emotional Healing” is energy psychology education in the Emotional Freedom Technique with the perfect balance of information, instructions, video…

Dawn Cady
Australia flag icon
Art Therapy
$50 USD
Artist Teacher Workshop Or Tutoring

“Life Force” guiding our history, our body and spirits. Self portrait art, life drawing from the live model, gesture, and plein air painting. And extended cont…

Bryan Prillwitz
United States of America flag icon
Tarot Reading
$100 USD
Timeline Reading

EGYPTIAN TAROT READINGS using unique methods developed by Nelise Carbonare, a Brazilian healer with more than 40 years of experience in tarot consultations, as…

Nelise Carbonare
United States of America flag icon
Tarot Reading
$120 USD
THE SYNERGY OF THE PYRAMID

THE SYNERGY OF THE PYRAMID focuses on a specific relationship: One side for the consultant and one for their partner. (the partner does not need to be present …

Nelise Carbonare
United States of America flag icon
Tarot Reading
$10 USD
Pick one card

Many questions can be answer with just one Arcane.

Do you want to try?

Nelise Carbonare
United States of America flag icon
Personal Development Coaching
$50 USD
Spiritual Coaching - Removing Energy Blocks - Expansion

> “Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakens.” Jung

Spiritual coaching is about moving you into a profound state of empowerment and involution m…

Kimla Rose (Kim Desrosiers)
United States of America flag icon
Life Coaching
$10 USD
Life Purpose and Soul Wisdom

What is your deeper truth, your deeper knowing, your MOJO, your deepest desires, those feelings that you can’t explain but that are so pure and so clear…or may…

Anna Beale
United States of America flag icon
Wellness Coaching
$10 USD
Your Missing Manual for Health & Life!

Are you constantly reading books, blogs and listening to podcasts trying to figure out what to do to be healthy?

With so much conflicting information out ther…

Pamela Malo
United States of America flag icon
Nutritional Therapy
$150 USD
Nutritional Therapy Consultation

Hi my name is Aria and I am the founder of Heal with Nutrition. I am a registered Nutritional Therapist and a Naturopath who has a passion on Nutrition and Hea…

Aria Alexandrou
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Tarot Reading
$10 USD
THOTH AND HERMETIC DECKS READING

With a deep knowledge of hermeticism and being introduced to the kabbalah tradition of the emanation process from the tree of life, I provide a deep insight co…

James Marchiori
Ireland flag icon
Personal Development Coaching
$55 USD
The Bridge to Your Desired Life

This is were you get real help with your struggles and life challenges. As life gets harder to cope with, we tend to look for external ways to get through. And…

Mina Mikhail
United States of America flag icon
Naturopathy
$10 USD
Intake Consult

short introduction consult to Integrative Medicine

Femke Neervoort
Netherlands flag icon
Career Coaching
$300 USD
Reset Coaching and Mentoring Programme

12 weeks of bi-weekly 90 minutes 1:1 Coaching and Mentoring. Total cost USD1800 (6x90minutes career coaching and mentoring session)

Are you returning to work …

Carla Martins
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Personal Development Coaching
$120 USD
Spiritual Life Coach Session-Personalized Session

Personalized Sessions

Because Everyone Is Unique

Client-centered sessions based on the area of focus requested by the client.

Each session is a LIVE Sessio…

Deborah Lucero
United States of America flag icon
Reiki
$55 USD
Guidance, Inspiration & Healing

This type of session is a favorite among many of my clients, as it is often times one of the smoothest way to address a challenge to reach a happier and health…

Mina Mikhail
United States of America flag icon
Mediumism
$10 USD
Psychic Readings

I specialize in love, past present future, future, past life, general, tarot, dream interpretation, specific, social, and career readings! Book today for clari…

Holly
United States of America flag icon
Life Coaching
$399 USD
1-on-1 Coaching

The journey started with our discovery call, and You decided: ” I’m ready! Let’s do this!”.

We will engage in 1-on-1 coaching sessions for 90 minutes. In this…

Carla Martins
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Ascension
$88 USD
Ascension Mentor Support

In this session, we come together with similar to a healing session but face to face.

We talk about what issues you are facing at the moment and we delve deep…

Claire C.
Australia flag icon
Spiritual Healing
$177 USD
Energy Healing

I am honored to assist you with intuitive channeled energy healings that support and nurture you on a physical level as well soul and energetic level, each ses…

Claire C.
Australia flag icon
Reiki
$375 USD
Usui Reiki 1st Degree Course

FIRST DEGREE COURSE - The ultimate Reiki course.

Have you ever wondered if you can heal? Have you felt a burning desire to help others? Then you’ve come to th…

Step Into Your Light - Christina Moore
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Life Coaching
$10 USD
Hand Analysis - Startup Session

What does a hand analysis do for me? ​

You will understand yourself and your life purpose. ​You will understand the roots of your triggers and reactionary be…

Brent Bruning, Master Hand Analyst
Switzerland flag icon
Shamanism
$10 USD
Sample Akashic Records Reading for Your Burning Issue

I connect to your Akashic Records and listen to what your guides want to bring to your conscoius attention at this time. Perhaps, it is an insight into why you…

Olga Aydınoğlu
Turkey flag icon
Shamanic Healing
$300 USD
Shamanic Healing Art

What is Shamanic Healing Art?

It is a physical artwork (usually a pastel drawing) I make for you based on the outcome of our online session. This artwork will…

Olga Aydınoğlu
Turkey flag icon

Related Articles