The science of what happens to our body in a flow state (neurochemistry of flow): 

This article is part II of last month’s post about flow: What flow means in positive psychology.  If you haven’t heard of flow, I recommend first reading “What flow means in positive psychology”.

For the fellow lovers of human psychology and peak performance: I hope you enjoy reading about flow as much as I enjoy writing about it. This article walks through the addictive neurochemicals associated with flow, how it results in extraordinary senses and signals, and the dark side/risks of flow in business and in life.

In positive psychology, flow is the term used to describe the feeling of being in the zone.

It’s the state we enter when we give our full attention to a task for a long period of time. To summarize last month’s article, the main feelings associated with flow are as follows.

Main feelings associated with flow:

  • Excitement to complete clear goals that are challenging, yet attainable
  • Strong concentration and total focused attention on the activity at hand
  • Activity feels intrinsically rewarding
  • A loss of self-consciousness
  • Serenity
  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs.

As with part I on the topic of flow, the facts in this article are ALL accredited to Steven Kotler and are taken from his book The Rise of Superman.

There are too many neurochemical systems involved with flow to mention, so we’ll focus in on what matters for this article

At the most basic level neurochemicals are information molecules used by the brain to communicate/send messages. These messages are usually either warning signs or signs to keep going.

There are dozens of neurochemical systems that are involved with flow, but the two main characteristics worth discussing here are the neurochemicals that cause the feel-good nature of flow and the performance-enhancing effects of flow.

The specific neurochemical systems involved with flow are what makes flow so intriguing and addicting. (This post is about to get data heavy! It’s not too late to go back and read What flow means in positive psychology.)

Flow results in extraordinary senses and signals.

neuroscience of flow

The state of flow results in enhanced performance due to the chemicals released by our body. These feel-good chemicals act as a “reward system” for accessing flow. This biological reward system is the explanation of why this flow is a state we all crave.

The mighty cocktail of flow includes the below chemicals:

  • Emotionally, we feel dopamine as engagement, excitement, creativity, and desire to investigate and make meaning out of the world.
  • Physically dopamine does a great job at tuning out signal-to-noise ratios
  • Provides another boost in the body, it speeds up heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration, and triggers glucose release so we have more energy.
  • In the brain, norepinephrine increases arousal, attention, neural efficiency and emotional control.
  • In flow, this is what keeps us locked in on a target.
  • This naturally occurring opiate relieves pain and produces pleasure much like externally added opiates like heroin.
  • It’s potent too. The most commonly produced endorphin is 100 times more powerful than medical morphine
  • Anandamide gets its name from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”.
  • It similarly feels like the psychoactive effect found in marijuana.
  • Known to show up in exercise-induced flow, this chemical elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels and bronchial tubes and amplifies lateral thinking.
  • More critically, it inhibits our ability to feel fear.
  • The molecule that helps people cope with adversity.
  • It’s responsible for the after-flow effect and is present when flow is coming to an end – giving us an elated feeling.

The term ‘adrenaline junkie’ is making much more sense now, isn’t it? We crave this feeling, and we don’t really have a choice in the matter. Our bodies are biologically created to desire the state of flow.

New data related to the neurochemistry of flow 


Recently, scientists have found that the main function of the neocortex is to predict the future. Scientists originally presumed the neocortex was there to gather information, assess the situation, and then choose the right option.

This finding suggests that the senses first gather data and the brain then uses that data to predict what is happening in the world before it happens.

This prediction function of our brain is vital to our survival, and it’s so important, that when we use that pattern-recognition data to predict correctly, we are rewarded with rushes of dopamine. As mentioned above, dopamine feels incredible to us. Cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs in the world because it releases dopamine.

Dopamine not only feels unbelievable, but it also heightens our senses by reducing noise in our neural networks, while making it easier for our brain to notice more patterns. This is one of the reasons why those in a flow state are able to complete remarkable feats.

The more time a neuron in our brain fires, the easier and more frequently we are able to find that connection. So the more we find a flow state, the easier it is for our brain to find it again.

The dark side of flow

the dark side of flow

“The feeling of flow can be all-encompassing to us. It can become an obsession, and for good reason- it feels like the meaning of life.” – Steven Kotler

The neurochemicals that are involved with the state of flow are the most addictive chemicals on earth, and the psychological impact is equally as powerful. Scientists who study human motivation have found that after our basic survival needs are met, the most powerful intrinsic (motivational) drivers are all deeply woven into the state of flow.

Humans’ three most intrinsic (motivational) drivers are the combination of:

  • Autonomy: the desire to direct your own life
  • Mastery: the desire to learn, explore, and be creative
  • Purpose: the desire to matter, to contribute to the world

“Thus toying withflow involves tinkering with primal biology: addictive neurochemistry, potent psychology, and hardwired evolutionary behaviors. Seriously, what could go wrong?” – Steven Kotler

The personal risk of flow:

The fact that toying with flow involves tinkering with addictive primal biology is part of the risks that are associated with flow. Even when things go right in flow, things can go wrong. When we choose to chase experiences full of intense versions of the flow state, we must continue to increase the level of challenges we face.

This causes some people to climb a dangerous latter of elevated risk. The fully alive feelings associated with flow in combination with the deeply committed feelings that are a result of the flow state leads many people to walk a dangerous path in life.

Another dark side of flow is the risk of those who grow bitter due to “life’s responsibilities” getting in the way of their flow-inducing activities.

The risk of growing bitter and depressed due to removing flow-inducing activities isn’t particularly easy to handle. How many people have stopped playing guitar, painting, dancing, writing and other activities that induce flow because these are not activities that also squarely fit into the “culturally acceptable” responsibility categories? Culturally acceptable responsibility categories are things like career or children.

How many now grown adults have put away their surfboard or the skateboard because they “don’t have the time”? How many have made the mistake of ignoring the importance of the vehicle that leads us to an experience (the surfboard, etc), forgetting about what the experience does for us?

Flow is such a vital human experience, that it biologically rewards us with the chemicals that cause feelings of being alive and joyful. It shouldn’t be ignored. Flow inducing activities should be deeply woven into our daily lives. Leading us to now consider the business risks caused by a lack of flow.

The business risk caused by lack of flow  

The understanding of humans’ intrinsic desires is essential for all managers and business owners alike. Assuring your employees are taught, trained, and provided the space to access flow is now imperative to a productive and fruitful work environment.

The old structure of a corporate environment is quickly dying. Employees are not willing to productively work in environments that don’t meet their intrinsic desires. When a workplace does not meet intrinsic desires, it will be full of clock-watchers, Instagram dwellers, and time-wasters. Essentially, businesses must evolve or die.

Creating an environment where employees have the ability to experience ALL of the feelings we reviewed above will create the “buy-in” every manager dreams of. The frustration of dealing with clock-watchers will diminish, and your business will be given the opportunity to attract and keep devoted employees who are “bought in” to the company’s goals.

Businesses that evolve as the next generation enters the work-force will be the businesses that succeed long-term. Millennials aren’t killing productivity or the work-force, the right Millenials are just demanding that the workplace evolves to meet our intrinsic desires, because why shouldn’t it? Or, the right Millenials are attempting to create an environment where this exists for other people to enjoy and flourish (cough, cough).

We are living in such an exciting time. Science and spirituality are merging as one, and we are just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the human mind. If we don’t take advantage of these new conclusions and find ways to incorporate them into our daily lives, then, what’s the point of this endless knowledge?

If you liked this post, you might also like:

What flow means in psychology: here

Using emotional intelligence (EQ) to change your life: here

How to get what you want: here 

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