Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series on the phases of flow states. In it, Contributing Editor JP Schlick speaks with The Rise of Superman author Steven Kotler and professional climber Cedar Wright, discussing both the theory behind these states, as well as the applicable and thereby relatable takeaways from experiences of both weekend warriors and tightly tuned professionals.
“If you want to understand what is going on in action and adventure sports, you have got to understand that there has been near exponential growth in ultimate human performance,” says Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. “In surfing, which is a 1000 year old sport, from 400 AD to 1996, the biggest wave anybody had ever surfed was 25 feet. Anything above that, everybody including surfers and scientists, thought would be impossible. And today we are pushing waves that are 100 feet tall… that’s exponential growth, nothing like that has ever happened before.”
Kotler, a life long skier and mountain biker, attributes this unprecedented growth — or “progression” to use the parlance of many an x-games broadcast — to the sate of Flow. Coined by the father of flow science Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” is a term that best embodies what Abraham Maslow first described as a “peak experience” in which an individual “experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity and meaningfulness in life.” Csikzentmihalyi added a bit of specificity with his definition of flow describing the state as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skill to the utmost.”
What makes actions sports unique when talking about flow, is that rather than it being a nice, occasional byproduct of engaging in an activity as it is with, say, playing music, software coding, or painting a portrait, action sports, at the highest levels, require the state.
“I think that’s one of the reason’s I love climbing,” says professional climber and filmmaker Cedar Wright. “Certainly I think there’s a lot of different levels of flow. You have these days where everything is clicking, you just feel at one with the rock, so to speak; and there’s a level of flow state in any climb. There’s just so much going on, so much information you’re taking in that you have no choice but to go with the flow.”
Wright relates flow to meditation, a practice he had taken up prior to discovering climbing.
“I think, really, the flow state is essentially, in my mind, a meditative state,” he explains. “With climbing, I think it just naturally forces you into that state.”
When Csikszentmihalyi looked at Chess Masters in the heat of a match, he hooked them up to EEG machines and found that their brainwaves were somewhere in the range of low alpha-high theta. He associated alpha waves to relaxation and theta waves to REM sleep and meditation. In a sense, at least in terms of neuroelectricity, the flow state is a restful and active meditation, lending scientific credence to Wright’s personal experience.
In a continued attempt to quantify all things, scientists have since discovered other bodily processes that are also associated with the state of flow. At this point in the research, according to Kotler, we know that flow states are associated with dramatic changes in neurochemistry, neuroanatomy, and the aforementioned neuroelectricity.
In neuroanatomical terms, during a flow state certain areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex seem to all but shut down. Which makes sense — when the prefrontal cortex is active, our explicit system or rule-based conscious system dominates, but when the prefrontal cortex is inactive, the implicit or unconscious system of intuition takes over. This might explain why athletes who are struggling to get into the zone feel the need to “get out of their head.”
“It all comes back to the breath and relaxation,” says Wright. “It’s all about getting back to a relaxed mind state. At the cost of safe climbing, you can get into this mentality where you’re just looking up, thinking about everything ahead of you, instead of being on the climb in the moment and only thinking about the next move and really reacting to the climbing. It’s easy to be too many moves ahead, kind of like being nervous about what’s to come as opposed to being in the moment getting the climbing done that’s in front of you.”
Wright is still very much on the forefront of the modern climbing movement, despite having evolved from his days as a cave-dwelling, dirt-bag climber calling Yosemite’s Camp Four home, or living out of the back of his truck in Joshua Tree. At times, he full-on ditches the ropes and gear, opting to free-solo faces faces that less than a century ago had never been scaled.
“With soloing, the main motivation was just the freedom and ease and efficiency that you can climb a rock with,” Wright expounds. “It’s just faster and more free and you’re not relying on anyone but yourself. To me that’s the real appeal of it. There’s certainly a flow state with it, and a few times I’ve definitely had to (when I’ve maybe pushed a little further than I should have) really tap into something real other-worldly there for a second. You really have no choice but to fully perform. That’s a really interesting state to be in, to be in this highly athletic, intuitive mind frame where you’re trying to read the terrain and climb to the top without falling. It’s pretty fascinating.”
While we tend to think we have this whole flow thing figured out, even Kotler, who preaches the benefits of Flow science, acknowledges that it’s all so new that we are really just starting to figure out the potential of flow.
“The game is mostly mental,” says Kotler. “What we know about the mental game and mental performance is that we are at the front-end of this revolution. In flow science, for example, the psychology dates back 100 years, the neurobiology 20 years old, the physiology is less than five years old. We have no idea where our upper level is. Most people I talk to say we’ve only hit one to three percent of our possibility. However, I look at the what’s going on and I say: No way! It’s not possible!”
Three percent of our potential? These are hard numbers to choke down if we consider activities like wing-suit proximity flying. But as Wright notes, not everything is meant to be broken down in a lab and quantified in absolute terms.
“I think it’s even maybe more complex than just calling it a ‘flow state,'” Kotler continues. “I think there’s a lot of different nuances. There’s more to it than we could ever know really.”
What we do know, simply from an observational standpoint, is what we call flow is a highly sought-after and addictive state, and the changes in brain chemistry corroborate this. Getting into flow provides a chemical cocktail to the brain beyond any drug that has been synthesized or cultivated for medical or recreational use. There is a natural release of dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, norepinephrine, and endorphins. It’s like taking a hit of cocaine, MDMA, weed, speed, and heroin all-in-one perfectly measured and naturally modulated dose. When you consider how any one of those compounds can thoroughly take control of ones life, it’s no wonder that action sports athletes are willing to risk life and limb for the flow buzz.
It is those same high consequences, however, that allow action sports athletes to get deep into a state of flow and push the sport beyond its perceived confines. In fact, high consequences are one of 17 “flow triggers” that Kotler breaks down in Rise. And while all of those triggers, to varying degrees, can get you well on your way to flow-abundant euphoria, there is one that seems to stand apart from the rest: Clear Goals.
Without Clear Goals, a flow state is almost perpetually elusive and it is the one trigger that all others work in service of. Csikszentmihalyi, who takes the importance of getting into flow beyond just performance in sports and states unequivocally that the people with the most flow in their lives are the happiest individuals on the planet, hammers home the importance of goal setting. He explains that happiness “involves turning life into a unified flow experience. If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal then actions and feeling will be in harmony.”
Setting goals is not always conscious and planned as one might expect. As Wright explains, “Basically, it’s all very organic. I just love climbing and I get excited about a particular climb that I want to do. Then I want to see it through and accomplish it. A specific goal, or a specific formation, or a specific place that I want to go… I think in people who are getting in the flow, probably, have a level of obsession with what they’re doing that allows that, in a sense. They need to always be moving forward. They need to have the next goal. It all just kind of happens for me, even the goal forming. I get excited about a certain area. Right now I’m pretty excited about hard wide crack climbing and beta moves. I start seeking out the hard wide cracks and I tick them off. I go from one to the next. It’s all very organic for me.”
In direct application to athletic pursuits, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the steps in which an athlete can best produce flow in their lives: “The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.”
Whether through focused training and or innate ability high level performers all seem to have the ability, either consciously or not, to embody goal setting in this way. But it’s that last piece of the puzzle — “raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring” — that can lead even the most able performers to a potentially dark and dangerous place.
Photos courtesy of Cedar Wright are from he and Alex Honnold’s Sufferfest excursions. Buy Sufferfest 1 & 2 on Vimeo on Demand.
Check back in for Part 4, in which we explore the dark side of flow and how even with this naturally occurring state there can be too much of a good thing, scheduled to appear on The Inertia Mountain. Don’t forget to catch up with the Flow States series so far: