Being ‘In The Flow’: Psychologists and Neuroscientists explain the Phenomenon - RiseEarth

Being ‘In The Flow’: Psychologists and Neuroscientists explain the Phenomenon

by Core Spirit

Spirituality has been making an interesting comeback in recent years, or perhaps an entrée into the mainstream, with a new generation of young gurus and “spirit junkies” making it hip to be spiritual. Many of the lessons draw from religious tradition, yogic philosophy and meditation, and the idea of a greater, or universal, consciousness.

One concept that’s been central, now and in some traditions over the millennia, is the idea of getting out of our own way, or giving up control to some higher power/consciousness/energy, whatever that may be. In other words, being “in the flow.”

But what’s really fascinating about this idea is that it’s not actually specific to spirituality: many people talk of feeling, under the right conditions, like they’re in the flow, as if something greater has taken over and they’re simply letting it happen. Writers, artists, musicians, designers, athletes, and many others have experienced this state of flow, or being in the zone.

So what’s actually happening when we find ourselves in the flow? Do we need to understand this from a spiritual perspective, or can we explain it using what we know about human behavior and the human brain? To figure this out, I asked a psychologist and a neuroscientist, both of whom not only have expertise in their own fields, but who also each happen to have extensive knowledge of various philosophies, religions and practices throughout human history.

Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, makes a couple of points about what’s likely going on when we get out of our own way and into the flow. The first comes from looking at the other end of the spectrum—when we’re stressed, which might be considered the polar opposite of “flow.” He points out that at these times, our thinking starts to suffer, sometimes in significant and bizarre ways. We tend to look for patterns where there are none, and draw conclusions that don’t exist.
“A lot of research looks at what happens when you’re stressed,” he says. “The study that I like a lot is the one looking at Israeli paratroopers – they had them look at these pictures that look very fuzzy. In first one, you can clearly see through fuzz, an image of Saturn. In the next, there’s nothing there, just fuzz. If you give these paratroopers these two diagrams, they see Saturn, and most will say, ‘I don’t see anything’ in the other. But if they take the test right before they do a jump, they’re much more likely to see something in the one where there is nothing.”
This is very much like what’s happening when we’re going out about our daily lives, stressed out, trying to control things in that tense, clenching way. “We end up looking for patterns where they don’t exist,” says Michaelis, “which are physical manifestation of stress. We’re pattern-seeking creatures. But the idea is to come from the outlook of, ‘there may or may not be a pattern, but I’m not going to worry about it.’ So first, you get out of own way by not making situation worse.”

The other point he makes is that we’re a species who, when we’re young, are helpless and rely on other people to survive—doing so is built in, and it actually feels really good. This may be part of why surrender (to anything outside ourselves—a caregiver, a greater power, etc.) feels secure. “We’re an altricial species,” says Michaelis.

“We’re wired for this, we’re pretty much useless at birth. We have to give up control to other people, or we die. So in fact we’re wired to give up control—to trust others to have more knowledge than us.” So again, there’s something intrinsic about relinquishing control, that’s not only a necessity but actually kind of delightful and stress-relieving.

The final point he makes is bizarrely brilliant: He says that same delight in letting go also exists when we’re witnessing great art unfold. “It’s like television writing,” he says. “It’s so good these days that you can relax into it, and even give some leeway when an episode isn’t so good—you know it’ll be better down the line. It’s like, ‘Ok, I can relax’.” It’s that uncanny secure feeling of relaxing into the aptitude of another.

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