What Happens In Your Brain During A Flow State?

What do artists, athletes, gamers, and surgeons all have in common? They can enter a mental state of "flow" that enhances focus on the task at hand. However, they are not the only ones. According to the Mayo Clinic, anyone — dancers, gardeners, and even chess players — can get into a flow state.

Flow is a conceptual cousin to mindfulness — these are mental states that enable you to focus on the here and now. Words like "absorption" and "immersion" may come to mind when you think of flow. However, flow states center more on productivity during an activity (via MedicalNewsToday).

At one point or another, we've all experienced a flow state. Perhaps you went into flow the first time you painted, or maybe your first flow state happened when you learned a new activity, like surfing. There are a few tell-tale signs that you've entered a flow state. "Time slows down. Self vanishes. Action and awareness merge. Welcome to flow," Steven Kotler, journalist and director of the Flow Research Collective, explained while on The Too Fit Podcast.

According to Verywell Mind, flow states can not only increase creativity, learning, and performance, but they can also make you feel happier and rewarded. Here's what is going on in your brain during a flow state.

Your brain on flow: brain waves and neurochemicals

The brain is a complex organ — inside your head are billions of neurons that communicate through electrochemical signals (via MedicalNewsToday). One neurochemical associated with the brain's reward system is implicated in the flow state. According to MedicalNewsToday, people in flow states have greater dopamine levels. Notably, dopamine is linked to motivation and pleasure, two important aspects of the flow state (via the National Institutes of Health).

Beyond chemicals, the brain also emits electrical signals called brain waves (via Scientific American). A 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggested that the flow state is associated with higher theta waves in the front of the brain, but what does this mean?

According to Healthline, too much alpha wave activity can break your concentration. On the other hand, theta waves are associated with several key features of the flow state. First, theta waves are generally linked to positive emotions. Second, they allow you to perform actions while maintaining a reduced level of mental activity (via Scientific American). 

Flow states are characterized by rapt attention, high performance, and an overall good feeling. Research suggests that dopamine and theta waves may contribute to this incredible state of mind.