The biological basis of flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first drew our attention to the idea of a flow state in the early 90s and since then the concept has caught on. Most people have observed sports teams in a state of flow.  

A state in which a team suddenly achieves a level of brilliance and fluidity that is noticeably different from a ‘normal’ level of sporting function. You see it in a basketball team who, in a sudden flurry score 20 points and don’t seem to be able to miss the hoop. There appears to be an almost psychic connection between the players. They seem to know what each other is thinking and don’t even look where they are throwing the ball. While many of us have observed the flow state phenomenon in sport, it also exists in the world of business.

Like many complex ideas, flow is much talked about but poorly understood. With my colleagues, I’ve been studying and researching the physiology of the flow state for the last 15-20 years. Our research suggests that coherence may be the underlying biological basis of the flow state.

Coherence is a property that can emerge in any complex system and, when present, it enables that system to perform at a higher level. Coherence means there is a consistent repeating dynamic pattern. It can occur at a molecular level or at the level of the human heart, the brain or there can be coherence within the whole body.

Coherence in the whole human system requires synchronisation between the heart and the brain. Such coherence enables the system to function at a much higher level. Such synchronisation can also occur between individuals not just within one individual. When an executive team starts to pull together and function coherently it produces much better results. So whether we’re working at the molecular, the heart, the individual, the team level or even at the level of society, coherence is an operating principal that underpins higher performance at every level.

Paradoxically when you’re in a state of coherence it feels effortless, even though you may be applying a lot of physical effort. When we train athletes to achieve a coherent state they are able to apply more power, but interestingly it doesn’t feel like it to the athlete. The coherent state is often associated with a sense of complete absorption with the activity and a sort of pleasurable timelessness and selflessness.

The good news is you can cultivate a state of coherence within yourself and significantly step-change your performance. You can find the details on how in Dr. Alan Watkins’ book, Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership. If you are interested in a more detailed account of the mathematics behind coherence then check out Professor Stephen Strogatz book Sync from Cornell University.

If you’re facilitating or coaching other people, the more coherent you are the more you are able to help the people you are coaching to achieve a state of coherence themselves. Ultimately coherence, like any other biological state, can be infectious and the more powerfully coherent you are as an individual, the more powerful the effect on others. After all people are moved by emotion, not rationality.

If you are interested in learning more about flex, flow and how to develop greater levels of coherence, check out Dr. Alan Watkins’ book: Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership

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