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Flow State for Mental Health: Empathy and Creativity

Flow State for Mental Health: Empathy and Creativity


Figure 1: Unitary Continuum

Source: Yaden, D. B., & Newberg, A. (2022). The varieties of spiritual experience 21st century research and perspectives. Oxford University Press.

A flow state is a state of heightened connectedness between ourselves and the world or activity at hand, resulting in a feeling of effortless enjoyment of the present moment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This state exists on a spectrum of connectedness, known as the ‘unitary continuum,’ with a flow state positioned somewhere in the middle (Yaden & Newberg, 2022). The flow and the other states on the unitary continuum are considered self-transcendent experiences (Yaden et al., 2017).

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Flow State and Effortless Success

When accessed during an activity where the individual is skilled, the flow state often leads to outstanding achievements. Armin Van Buuren, an electronic music producer, alludes to the flow state in his Masterclass by emphasizing the importance of having fun, stating that the best music is produced from enjoyment (van Buuren, 2021). Similarly, A. Helwa, in her book Secrets of Divine Love, explains that the words she wrote did not originate from her but rather from a higher source (Helwa, 2020). This illustrates how surrendering to the flow state enabled her to create effortlessly, allowing the work to manifest through her with such ease that she felt it was not even her. Although it may feel like divine intervention, let’s dive into the neuroscience behind this state to understand what’s really happening.

What Is The Neuroscience of Flow State?

Meditative State of Mind and Body: During flow state, the brain is in a meditative state, evidenced by slowed brainwave activity (Katahira et al., 2018). Given that the body is an interconnected set of systems, it is not surprising that as our mind enters a slower brainwave state, the body’s parasympathetic mode (rest, repair, and digest function) is also activated (Yaden & Newberg, 2022, p. 80).

Linear Thinking Off, Unilateral Thinking On: Along with the meditative mind, our hardwired self-limiting beliefs and thoughts about ourselves are reduced, as shown by decreased default mode network (DMN) activity (Linden et al., 2021). This means the brain can explore more creatively, lighting up new neuronal pathways in all directions, known as ‘transient hypofrontality’ (Yaden & Newberg, 2022).

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How Might Flow State Increase Empathy?

Research shows increased humanitarianism following self-transcendent experiences (Elf et al., 2022; Yaden & Newberg, 2016). As a form of self-transcendent experience, the flow state shares similar underlying mechanisms. The humanitarianism observed following flow states may result from reduced DMN (self-thought) activity and increased brain connectivity.

Simplified: When we calm down (brainwaves slow), we let go of negative stress manifesting as self-doubt and self-preservation (DMN activity decreases), allowing us to tap into a wider range of positive emotional and intellectual experiences (neuronal connections increase).

Happiness and Empathy

Happy-go-lucky individuals, like SpongeBob, often exhibit high levels of empathy. Research supports this observation, showing that increasing serotonin levels, commonly simplified as the “happiness molecule,” makes people more empathetic and pro-social (Crockett et al., 2010). This correlation between happiness and empathy is well-documented in psychological literature. For instance, the longest-running study on happiness from Harvard University found that the happiest individuals were those with a few deep, meaningful relationships (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).

Deeper Relationships, Higher Happiness

This finding underscores that the depth of our connections significantly influences our happiness, and empathy plays a crucial role in forming these deep connections. Reflecting on the unitary continuum in figure one and its related research, we see that the more connected we feel to the world, the greater our empathy (Yaden et al., 2017). This increased empathy leads to deeper relationships, which in turn heightens our overall joy, bringing us back full circle to the idea that happiness is connection.

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Flow State Versus Pleasure

It’s not always about deep meditation; people in the world’s quietest room often feel like they’re going crazy, highlighting our intrinsic need for stimulation. Nor is it about loud music and indulgence. While this can be pleasurable, this post focuses on a different kind of fun. The key is balancing stimulation and activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

How to Access Flow State

The Right Stimulation: Too much stimulation can overly activate our nervous system and accelerate brainwaves. Flow state is achieved with just the right amount of stimulation, allowing access to self-transcendent meditative states. For instance, sitting by a lake with its subtle sounds and sights can help you enter a flow state, calming your brain and body and immersing you in the present moment. Nature is an excellent stimulator of flow state and can even help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) focus better (Taylor & Kuo, 2009). It could be a binaural beat, yellow lighting, or even a scent.

Intentional Associations: We all have that song that takes us back in time. In psychology, this is known as a learned association (Baum, 2017; Delamater & Lattal, 2014). We can leverage this knowledge by intentionally associating specific stimuli with a flow state. For example, lighting the same candle during writing sessions can help the mind recognize and enter a flow state quicker due to the familiar scent. Similarly, musician Alicia Keys leaves her studio in a good mood claiming that she wants to leave it with “good energy ” (Keys, 2022). What she is actually doing is maintaining an environment of positive associations so that whenever she reenters her studio, her mind will take her back into her rhythm.

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The Right Activity: The flow state is a highly personal experience, meaning you may find flow in activities that others might not imagine. This individuality is the beauty of being uniquely you. While some flow activities are common, others are unique to each person. To find your flow, follow your curiosity. What activities make you lose track of time and pour your heart into them? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow deepens as we immerse ourselves in an activity and develop our skills. In positive psychology, this is known as person-activity fit.

Sandwiching it all together, the flow state can be accessed through the right balance of stimulation and skill and can be triggered by training our mind to associate certain stimuli with the state.

References

Baum, W. M. (2017). Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, culture, and evolution. Wiley.

Crockett, M. J., Clark, L., Tabibnia, G., Lieberman, M. D., & Robbins, T. W. (2010). Serotonin modulates behavioral reactions to unfairness. Science, 320(5884), 1739.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Delamater, A. R., & Lattal, K. M. (2014). The study of associative learning: Mapping from psychological to neural levels of analysis. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 108, 1-4.

Elf, P., Isham, A., & Jackson, T. (2022). Self-transcendent experiences and sustainable prosperity. Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) Working Paper No. 32. Guildford: Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.

Helwa, A. (2020). Secrets of divine love: A spiritual journey into the heart of Islam. Naulit Publishing.

Katahira, K., Yamazaki, Y., Yamaoka, C., Ozaki, H., Nakagawa, S., & Nagata, N. (2018). EEG correlates of the flow state: A combination of increased frontal theta and moderate frontocentral alpha rhythm in the mental arithmetic task. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 300.

Keys, A. (Instructor). (2022). Alicia Keys teaches songwriting and producing. MasterClass. Retrieved from https://www.masterclass.com/classes/alicia-keys-teaches-songwriting-and-producing

Linden, D., Tops, M., & Bakker, A. B. (2021). The neuroscience of the flow state: Involvement of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, Article 645498.

Taylor, A. F., & Kuo, F. E. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12(5), 402-409.

van Buuren, A. (Instructor). (2021). Armin van Buuren teaches dance music. MasterClass. https://www.masterclass.com/classes/armin-van-buuren-teaches-dance-music

Waldinger, R., & Schulz, M. (2023). The good life: Lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. Simon and Schuster.

Yaden, D. B., & Newberg, A. (2022). The varieties of spiritual experience 21st century research and perspectives. Oxford University Press.

Yaden, D. B., & Newberg, A. B. (2016). Self-transcendent experiences as promoters of ecological wellbeing? Exploration of the evidence and hypotheses to be tested. Frontiers in Psychology.

Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of General Psychology, 21(2), 143–160. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000102



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