Finding a state of 'flow'

Does high performance come naturally and easily to you? Quentin Crisp once remarked that “if at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style” and Robert Louis Stevenson believed "Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail-in good spirits.” 

Well you and I are interested in exceptional success and tools and techniques that can help us achieve - and we are not alone.  Individuals and teams around the world are striving for consistent peak performance.  Biofeedback approaches are one way of finding the edge that leads to peak performance. These are techniques that acknowledge and take advantage of the mind-body connection and use this to great effect.

In search of peak performance 'on tap'

Whether in a sport or business domain, interest in achieving peak performance ‘at will’ has never been higher.  Peak performance means you are able to access levels of achievement that seem to break through the barriers of merely “above-average”.  We have all seen glimpses of this ‘flow state’ but rarely have we been able to access this at will.  

flow race

In sport are many examples and descriptions of this state of flow but fewer descriptions of how to get there or apply the lessons learned in other domains of life.  In motorsport at the highest level, the environment of mind-body engagement encourages this state of flow.  The late great Ayrton Senna described this very well in the book "Race Driving Skills" by Ross Bentley.

"When I am competing against the watch and against other competitors, the feeling of expectation, of getting it done and doing the best and being the best, gives me a kind of power that, some moments when I am driving, actually detaches me completely from anything else as I am doing it.  I can give a true example of this - Monte Carlo 1988, the last qualifying session. I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker and quicker and quicker. I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I kept going.  Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And I suddenly realised I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find more. Then suddenly something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. My immediate reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove back to the pits and I didn't want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding."

Leading organisations and teams are trying to shift from simply searching for those individuals like Ayrton who somehow had a natural gift, to a situation where we can train this state and make it accessible to more of us mere mortals in everyday situations.  Across the ages, the relationship between peak performance and an individual or team’s “state” has been explored from many different perspectives and this continues to this day.

“I suddenly realised I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving by instinct, only I was in a different dimension”
— Ayrton Senna

When I was exploring NLP, one of the most useful things I learned was how much our personal state (the package of how we think and feel in the moment) determines our behaviour and thereby our results in life.  NLP was great at providing simple techniques to become more self-aware and manhandle state so that it became much more of a choice and less determined by circumstances.  We learned that by adopting a particular body posture and gesture or altering our breath we could influence our thinking too and banish fear in the moment. A kind of “fake it until you make it” situation.  For some people, NLP was great because it ‘just worked’ - for others of a more skeptical mind-set they had to wait until science caught up and allowed us a greater grasp of how the body and mind actually cooperate.

Beginner martial artists learn the importance of breath and posture long before the penny drops about how important this is to clear thought when the pressure is on. Surely this cant be right we think? Isn't it all about the brain?  Science now knows it is more than that.

Throughout history we have recognised and rewarded the highest performers and noted that their success seemed to be beyond that achievable through normal training.  The highest performers in many fields have talked about naturally achieving a flow state in which they seemed to operate beyond conscious thought.

These individuals certainly had the skills of other high performers but the best had an extra “edge” that seemed to come somehow from their ability to find and sustain a particular state of mind.  In a state of flow, these individuals and teams certainly seemed to operate beyond thought - everything was effortless and time seemed to stand still as in Ayrton’s description of his driving.  It wasn’t about motivational speeches or obsessive training that’s for sure.

Stealing fire

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal give a fascinating view of how leading executives, military teams and business ventures are exploring “flow” states in their new book “Stealing Fire”.  They map how flow states can be achieved through a variety of techniques that vary in their relative mixes of risk and reward.  Whereas extreme sports, meditation, martial arts, drugs, music, biofeedback and more can all bring about altered states of consciousness, each technique makes different demands on us and may not be practical or be risky to adopt.  My fastest route to a flow state might be an extreme sport for example, but the risk may be just too much to bear.  I might try meditation but it might take much longer to become proficient so I can apply what I learn to other domains.

Of course, as we at Fixxl are active with biofeedback technology we are advocates of these sensor-based approaches to learning flow states.  In their book, Kotler and Wheal describe neuroscientists at DARPA and Advanced Brain Monitoring using neurofeedback techniques to promote this state of flow in soldiers. They found that soldiers solved complex problems and mastered new skills up to 490 percent faster than normal.  By sensing and using EEG signals, heart rate and more we can influence how individuals learn to find and hold these high performance states.

Embodied cognition

We have recognised for many years that the mind and body are linked and that one influences the other.  However, we used to think that the mind - body link was a top down one. In other words, it was like the mind was our “Operating System” controlling our body.  Some of this top down control was clearly conscious and some unconscious but over time our view of the mind - body connection has changed.

We now see the mind - body link rather differently. It is as if the mind acts as a “User interface” rather than an Operating System. The operating traffic goes two ways - from body to mind just as much as mind to body.  The brain may act as a type of inference engine which is constantly striving to predict what is going to happen (primarily with the intention of keeping us alive).

The field of neurocardiology is exploring the fact that the heart has it’s own “brain - like” function.  The heart is constantly informing the brain about the body’s overall level of ‘arousal’, the extent to which it is attuned to what is happening around it.  With each heartbeat, sensors known as ‘arterial baroreceptors’ pick up pressure changes in the heart wall, and signal the brain; between heartbeats, they are quiescent.

Such visceral information is initially encoded in the brainstem, before reaching the parts implicated in emotional and motivational behaviour. The brain, in turn, responds by trying to help the organism stabilise itself. If it receives signals of a raised heart-rate, the brain will generate predictions about the potential causes, and consider what the organism should do to bring itself down from this heightened state. This ongoing heart-brain dialogue, then, forms the basis of how the brain represents the body to itself, and creates awareness of the external environment.

A quick search for Embodied Cognition will illustrate how much this is a silent revolution that is ongoing but not yet in main stream consciousness.  We feel that embodied cognition will be one of the hot topics of the next few years as we gain increased understanding of how peak performance really works.

Recommended Reading

"Stealing Fire - How silicon valley, the Navy SEALS and maverick scientists are revolutionising the way we live and work" by Steven Kotler and jamie Wheal. Harper Collins. 2017

Check out our upcoming Biofeedback courses with a focus on high performance in Sport