By Luke McKenna

"Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity." Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, 2013

"Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. It is total absorption in a task and total focus." Steven Kotler, 2015

Have you ever lost track of time or been totally absorbed in a task? You may have been in a flow state, which is characterised by: 

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control over the activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding (rewarding for it's own sake- not particularly for an outcome)

(Csikszentmihalyi, 2013).

A flow experience causes a cascade of neurochemicals- norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and oxytocin- to be released into our brain (Kotler, 2015). This is the most potent concoction our brain can develop- a natural high. It makes us feel good.

Not only that, these experiences are performance enhancing. Creativity has been shown to increase 500-700% in a flow state. Military marksmen are 230% faster at shooting when they have been led into a flow state. The time taken for people to go from novice to mastery level in tasks such as archery has been cut in half. We tend to take in more information faster, link together related ideas more readily, (allowing us to synthesise at a higher level) and also connect different ideas more readily, (which improves our lateral thinking). (Kotler, 2015)
Flow allows us to truly focus our energies on one thing, which results in much higher mental output. The neurochemical dump that is experienced during a flow state helps our brain to better tag our learning experiences. Stven Kotler asserts that it  “jacks up learning”. In particular, the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the more chance it has of moving the experience from short-term holding into long-term storage in our brain. (Kotler, 2015)

Flow increases concentration. Our nervous system can process about 110 bits of data every second. Seems like a lot. However, when we listen and seek to understand someone, that uses up about 60 bits of data per second (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013). This is why we struggle to understand two people talking to us at once (it is also part of the reason why talking on the phone while driving, [even hands-free] is dangerous). Our brain is only free to receive an extra 50 bits of data. If we are a less experienced driver, that may not be enough free “brain space” to be proactive and safe on the roads.

Flow has a documented correlation with high performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity, teaching, learning, and sports. In addition, it has been linked to persistence and achievement in activities while also helping to lower anxiety during various activities and raise self-esteem (Nakamura, Csikszentmihályi, 2014).

So what can we do as educators to create the optimal learning conditions, and what factors are conducive to flow?
There are 3 main conditions that can lead to flow (Csikszentmihályi, Abuhamdeh, & Nakamura, 2005):

  • Clear goals and purpose- It makes sense that we identify and articulate learning intentions and success criteria at the start of a lesson.
  •  Clear, immediate feedback- this does not always need to be from the teacher- it may be peer to peer, or most often, students would get feedback from their progress on the task at hand- although this is very difficult when they don’t have a clear goal / purpose / learning intention to shoot for.
  • A balance of challenge and skills- this emphasises the need for differentiation in our classrooms, as the aim is to match the challenge to the perceived skills, to ensure that each student is able to “stretch” their skills. A slight stretch is best. (See diagram below for a simple illustration of this point).

Let’s be clear- teachers cannot create a flow state within their students. However, they can create environments where the flow state is more likely to occur by providing clear goals, feedback and challenges that match participants perceived skill. When they get students in their flow state, the neurochemical bomb that is created could lead to higher outcomes. One other consideration- flow is highly contagious. So flow envirnments could be key to high quality learning environments. What do you do to enhance flow in your work? Send me back an email if you have a handy way of using one of the 3 strategies mentioned, or let me know which one you are going to try to implement as you move forward.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness: Random House
Csikszentmihályi, M., Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), "Flow", in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihályi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. "Handbook of positive psychology," 89-105. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
The Neurochemistry of Flow States, with Steven Kotler, (2015).