54 days alone in Antarctica, with nothing but complete silence, raging winds, and far, far below zero temperatures, Colin O’Brady did the impossible when he became the first man to cross Antarctica alone.
Though, he almost didn’t make it through the first hour.
What drove him to succeed in this ambition, over a decade removed from being told by doctors that he’d never be able to walk again after a fire mishap in Thailand that left his bottom half extensively burned? His answer: the flow state.
“I ended up being in this timeless, spaceless place in my mind of true high performance that was almost like the most deepest, peaceful meditative state that I could possibly imagine. It was very profound and beautiful to get there in my mind.” — C.O.
Recently, I had written about the flow state, summarizing that there exists a state of mind whereby consciousness flows through these various states of enhanced thinking, akin to some kind of hyper-awareness in the present moment. Since then, I’ve heard numerous mentions of it in podcasts and other forms of media, prompting me to re-assess my initial approach in describing this particular frame of consciousness.
Appearing on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, Colin O’Brady did a much better job of describing this flow state than I could surmise in his telling of how he had managed to cross the Antarctic coast, hauling a 375-pound in the process.
With respect to my last post, I realized it was naively sudden of me to go about trying to spoon-feed something that people are already largely aware of. Rather than feeling foolish, though, I’m exhilarated by the prospect that this really is a commonly felt phenomenon.
So, in this follow-up endeavor, I plan to look deeper into the mind as to what accounts for this psychological state of awareness, what neuro-chemical activities are at play and how to better understand this enhanced state of mind. Similar to Colin’s mission:
“The mental side of it was by far the most interesting side of it for me… an exploration into the mind is what it was for me…”— C.O.
Colin came upon his realization of these states in a similar way that I did — through immersion in physical endurance.
“I started to be able to trigger these flow states.. As a lifelong professional athlete through different capacities in my life, I’ve tapped into that, I was a swimmer as a little kid so swimming laps in a pool, sometimes I would tap into this timeless space where maybe 30 minutes would go by in 2 minutes but I never really knew how I got there, just would sometimes tap into it and sometimes not.."— C.O.
Like me, only under much more extreme, intense and applaudable circumstances, he began tinkering with trying to trigger this mental capacity rather than letting it come naturally:
“As I got more and more into these white-outs, staring at the compass, staring at this expansive landscape, I started to find ways to trigger that flow state in my mind, so it got to the point where I could, for several days at a time, be in this deep flow state.”— C.O.
So what could it be, then, that’s occurring in the mind? We Western rationalists seem to need our scientific justification to even bat an eye towards anything beyond the normative functions of human existence. So here it may be.
The concept had been initially named by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, named after the feeling that his subjects evoked — akin to being carried upon a current of water (flowing).
When a person engages in this flow state, they lose awareness of all other things around the — time, distractions, people, bodily needs. All the mental energy of the person enveloped in the flow state is directed at the task at hand. Take a rather simple example — a devout gamer who can go hours at a time without so much as experiencing hunger, developing a thirst, etc. They’re in the zone, better than anyone else can be in that moment.
From a neurobiological standpoint, the flow state is the byproduct of various changes that emanate from brain function — particularly, the deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, as expert Steven Kotler reveals. As the prefrontal cortex disappears from the action, we lose our sense of self, self-monitoring and impulse control. The result is a vast spike in creative potential, imagination, and the idealizing of new possibilities.
“The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals.” — Steven Kotler
To tap into it?
One characteristic that seems to be required is prompting to become fully and completely immersed in any given activity, so much so that one’s sense of time and space is, simply put, disregarded.
In his book, Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:
“The human organism cannot survive as a bundle of neural reflexes, or even of stimulus-response learning pathways. In order to perform within the infinitely complex ecosystem to which it became adapted, it needed to establish autonomy from the genetically determined instructions that had shaped its behavior through the long eons of its evolution.”
In other words, our minds have developed in such a way so as to mediate between the genetic instructions manifested within our instinct, all working under the cultural instructions that serve to influence our behavior. When we tap into a flow state, the “should” and “ought to” go out the window as we’re completely immersed in whatever’s happening at the moment.
“I kind of entered a flow state. I’ve been there before while climbing. You are not thinking ahead. You are just thinking about what is in front of you each second. “ — Aron Ralston
While I can’t necessarily speak for others, what helps me enter the flow state is an aggressive desire to remain as vigilant as possible in respect to my own mental states, to elevate my awareness so that I’m looking down upon my own modes of thinking. Of course, this must be compounded with an activity that manages to capture my full and unwavering attention — mountain biking, competing, even sometimes (and to a lesser degree) writing.
But the sensation when I find myself in that particular state of mind, it’s completely surreal and all the more phenomenal when exercising awareness of being in that very moment itself. To not only stand at the precipice of the mind's potential, but to be aware of it.
At the end of the day — this is what captures our attention, why you’ve chosen to read this article. The mind is this beautifully enigmatic entity that, try as we might, we can’t completely unravel. Though, collectively, we can learn more and more as we go along — share our experiences, document our thoughts, convey our insights. It can be said, then, that the true key to understanding the mind rests outside of it as much as it does inside, in the experiences of others who choose to meander down the labyrinthine paths of self-discovery.