Getting in the zone

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Time has stopped. The world around you has disappeared. You are completely immersed in whatever you’re doing. Anything is possible and you feel invincible. What’s going on in your brain when you’re ‘in the zone’?

When you’re in the zone. Image credit Raffi Youredjian via Flickr

Going with the flow

Do you call it being ‘in the zone’? Or perhaps ‘in the groove’? If you’ve ever felt completely engrossed in a task to the point that nothing could distract you, you’ve experienced what psychologists call ‘flow’. This term was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi back in 1990.

When you’re in a state of flow, you’re completely focused on whatever you’re doing in the present moment. To the extent that you forget about yourself and the world around you. You feel a sense of mastery over what you’re doing and completely lose track of time. It feels like nothing else matters: your sole focus is continuing to do whatever it is you’re doing. And chances are, you’re performing at your best.

These are a few of my favourite things

You are most likely to get into the zone when doing your favourite things. Perhaps you’ve experienced this sensation when running, writing, gaming, playing chess, painting or playing music. Many an athlete has described feeling invincible and as if time had slowed to a crawl during a medal-winning performance.

The key factor in flow appears to be the relationship between how difficult a task is and how good you are at it. If whatever you are trying to do is too challenging, you are more likely to end up anxious, scared or frustrated than in a state of flow. If on the other hand, the task is too easy, you’ll be bored and disinterested rather than engrossed. What you need to find is the sweet spot between boredom and stress. You need to feel challenged, but not so challenged you feel anxious; you need to have confidence you can achieve what it is you want to accomplish. Piano players experiencing flow have a slowed heart rate, reduced blood pressure and relaxed facial muscles.

When your brain is in the zone

Interesting things are going on in your brain when you’re in a state of flow. Firstly, your brain is more focused on the subconscious than on conscious thought. The phrase ‘going with the flow’ turns out to be more accurate than we might have once thought: when you’re in the zone, the areas of your brain that are normally involved in decision making are shut off. You don’t need high-power thinking or reasoning to solve problems; in flow you know what to do next without thinking about it. Things simply flow!

Shutting off some of your higher-power thinking (located in your pre-frontal cortex) has other fascinating consequences. With this part of the brain less active, you are less likely to self-monitor and control your impulses. You end up less critical, more creative and more courageous. When scientists scanned the brains of improvising jazz piano players, they got a clear picture of what was going on. While improvising, jazz musicians brains’ are much less active than normal in the areas responsible for planning and self-censoring. As a result, the players feel less inhibited. At the same time, parts of the brain involved with self-expression are far more active.

Your brainwaves also change when you’re in flow. Instead of the usual fast-moving waves when you’re awake, your brainwaves slow down to day-dreaming speed. And being able to move from thought to thought without any resistance fosters creativity. At the same time, your brain is flooded with feel-good chemicals including endorphins. These chemicals increase your focus and ability to link ideas in new ways. No wonder flow feels great – and liberating. Get ready to produce some of your most inspired work.

The dark zone

But there’s a dark side to this state of flow. Christened the ‘machine zone’, it’s when you completely zone out. Perhaps it happens when you’re scrolling through your social media feed. You get into a rhythm – scroll, click like, scroll more and repeat. Everything else fades away, time disappears, and you are fully immersed in… Facebook.

If you’ve got the time, catching up on your friends’ news is no bad thing. But as anyone who has ever been sucked into playing a poker machine knows, this sort of zone can be extremely difficult to leave. You’re in the zone, but without the pleasure, mastery or meaning.

So next time you find yourself in the machine zone, walk away. Instead, lose yourself in doing something you love.


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  1. Interesting topic, this one. I can’t help but imagine jazz musicians being wired up to some mad scientist’s brain monitoring equipment. It is a true testament to their ability to get into the zone, whilst overcoming the wires… but maybe I’ve watched too many 1950s mad scientist movies.

    • I don’t think there were any wires involved Marti. But the best bit about the study was they wanted the pianists to play inside an MRI machine. Which means the researchers needed to come up with a keyboard with no metal parts. The things people do for science 😃

      • Ah Jen, you take away the fun of it all when you share the truth behind the experiment. I am however, impressed by the use of the MRI. Having been the subject of an MRI in the past, not sure I could rise above the situation and get into the zone 🙂

  2. Pingback: Why you (probably) can’t multitask – Espresso Science

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