Whether it’s an athlete performing at their best or a musician taking it to another level, flow feels good and is good for our well-being. And the best part — pretty much anyone can attain it. Evidence suggests flow can ward off depression, prevent burnout and make us more resilient.
In this episode, Richard Huskey, a UC Davis assistant professor of communication and cognitive science, explains the flow state, how he and other researchers are piecing together how it can be achieved and what is going on in the brain when it happens.
Richard Huskey You can experience flow running. You can experience flow in nature. You can experience flow in creative pursuits. It's something that people can experience across all these different ways of of finding recreation or leisure enjoyment. And that's, that's to me, one of the coolest parts of flow.
Soterios Johnson You've probably heard about athletes or others being "in the zone." Maybe you've even felt it yourself. Well, it's a real measurable process called flow. And not only does it feel good, it actually has some tangible benefits for your well-being. This is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas. I'm Soterios Johnson. Richard Huskey is an assistant professor at the UC Davis Department of Communication. He also directs the Cognitive Communication Science Lab and is a researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain. He's been studying flow and its neural basis. Thanks for coming on to The Backdrop, Richard.
Richard Huskey Hey, thank you so much for having me.
Soterios Johnson So what exactly is being in a flow state?
Richard Huskey Sure thing. So you really hit the nail on the head in your introduction. We colloquially talk about flow as being "in the zone" or the "runner's high" or that sort of thing. It's a good intuition for what we're talking about when we're saying somebody is experiencing flow. But a little bit more precisely, we are talking about a constellation of phenomenological experiences. First, time passes in really interesting ways when people are experiencing flow. Sometimes it speeds up, but more often than not it can slow down. It can feel like time gets a little bit longer when you're doing something that is inducing flow. It is often a really difficult task, but we don't perceive it as being difficult, at least in the moment. This is that idea again of the runner's high. If you look at marathon runners, when they're on mile 18, they look like they just started running and they feel great. But then the moment they get across the finish line, they often collapse. That's this low perception of energetic demand that comes with flow. It's often described as a highly fluid, high-performance situation, and it's one where the task or the thing that you're doing is intrinsically rewarding. And so by intrinsically rewarding, I mean, the thing that you're doing is worth doing in and of itself. Sure, maybe there's some positive outcome that you expect upon completing the task. We call that an extrinsic reward, but flow itself, flow experiences are things that are worth doing in and of themselves or highly rewarding to do in the first place. And we think flow occurs when three things are happening. One, there's really clear goals about what it is that you're supposed to be doing. You're getting real time performance feedback about how well you're doing. And quite crucially, the difficulty of the thing that you're doing has to be high, as does your skill of the thing that you're doing. It's only when those three conditions are met would we expect somebody to experience flow.
Soterios Johnson Right. So it's not not necessarily just kind of losing track of time on the Internet or on Instagram or something like that. It's it's you're kind of like maybe losing track of time, but you're also focused on a goal, as you say. But it's a goal that's not so out of reach that you can't attain it. It's kind of like the the goal that you're trying to reach is pretty closely matched to what you're able to actually achieve.
Richard Huskey Exactly. Yeah, this is a really good question. So the idea is that the difficulty of the task should be high and matched with your ability or skills. So there should be a clear balance there. If you -- there's actually this it's kind of gotten described as the wagon wheel model of flow. But the basic idea is that you can, depending on different combinations of skill and challenge, you can identify the different psychological states somebody might be in. So imagine a task that you're really high skill at, but is a relatively low challenge task. This might be watching television, right? We're all pretty expert TV watchers, but it's not necessarily very difficult to do. You might argue that that's a state of relaxation. By comparison, you know, here at UC Davis finals week is next week. And there's certainly a lot of students that are probably worried that they haven't studied quite enough for their final exam. So their skill on the course material might be low, but the challenge of the final exam might be really high. And so that can elicit a state of anxiety, right? And so depending on these different combinations of challenge and skill, you might end up in a phenomenological state that's very different from flow. It's only when the difficulty of the task is high your ability of the task is also high, then we would expect you to feel flow.
Soterios Johnson Right. So so when all when all of these things come together and someone achieves a state of flow, what's going on in the brain?
Richard Huskey Oh, that's a really good question. So we've been really busy trying to come up with an answer to that question. One of the first things that we do is we had to figure out a way to actually elicit flow in an fMRI scanner. Our lab uses fMRI principally. And it's a really weird place to do research. I don't know if you've you or if anybody listening has ever been into an f- or an MRI scanner before. But it's loud, it's cramped, it's uncomfortable. We tend to bolster you in there to make it really difficult for you to move. And so most people would say being in an fMRI scanner is very much not a flow-inducing experience. But for us, what we do is we've developed a special video game that people can play even when they're in the scanner. And we manipulate this video game so that it's either really too difficult or very, very easy, or we have a little algorithm in it that dynamically adjusts the difficulty depending on how well people are doing. So that would be our flow experimental condition.
Soterios Johnson So you're trying to like match the challenge to their level. So you're trying to, as you say, elicit a flow state.
Richard Huskey Exactly right. So we're doing research in this really complicated place an fMRI scanner where most people are not experiencing flow and using this powerful video game stimulus to elicit flow. And it it seems to work actually pretty well. And so what that's let us discover is the answer to your question, which is what's happening in the brain when people are experiencing flow. And I'll say for the moment, I think we're finally starting to get an answer to this question. The flow research has been around since the 1970s, but really only in the last 10, maybe 15 years have people really started to investigate its neural basis. And so there's a couple of things that we've discovered. One, regions in the brain associated with what scientists call cognitive control -- that's goal directed behavior, that's ignoring distracters, that's how you pursue specific and long-term goals, that sort of thing -- areas associated with cognitive control and then reward are strongly activated when people are experiencing flow. And so we think that has something to do with this challenge-skill balance, right? Flow is something that emerges when people are doing a difficult task. And we would expect then to see high levels of neural activation in regions associated with cognitive control. At the same time, we also know that flow is highly rewarding to do, and that's why we tend to see neural activation in regions associated with reward processing as well.
Soterios Johnson So are you, are you saying like that there are these different kind of regions of the brain are somehow working together in a way that they normally wouldn't be in a non-flow state?
Richard Huskey Mm hmm. Yeah, that's that's definitely what we observe. We've actually tested that exact question. And so not only do we see that there's high levels of activity in these regions associated with cognitive control and reward. We've actually conducted a series of studies that have let us look to see how those different regions are working together. And what we've discovered is that they're working together in this networked way. In fact, the organization of that network is really energetically efficient relative to non-flow experiences. And we think that has something to do with why people perceive flow as being this low-energy intensity experience, even when the difficulty of the task is high and people are often expending a lot of energy when they're experiencing flow. We think this kind of low-energy brain state might have some explanation linking that perceptual experience with, you know, brain process.
Soterios Johnson So is being in a flow state the same thing as being "in the zone?" I mean, is there a difference?
Richard Huskey Yeah. So I would say that the two are often used the same casually. So I think that that's I think that's a fair way to describe it. So when we're talking about flow, we're talking about this really specific constellation of phenomenological experiences that I described earlier, whereas I think people sometimes describe being in the zone as just in time, they're really focused on something or having a really great time. But we know flow is not just having a strong attentional focus on something or having a really great time. It's something that combines those elements with a few other things.
Soterios Johnson Have you found or has anyone found that people, when they're in the flow, in a flow state, are they somehow are they more creative or are they more productive, or do they just feel like they're more creative or more productive?
Richard Huskey Interesting question. That's actually that line of questioning was what really defined a lot of the early flow research. So, Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the idea of flow, his earliest research was on music composers trying to understand how it was -- like expert music composers -- how it was that they could create and craft their music. And they he was doing these interviews with them and they kept describing this experience that he later called flow. Csikszentmihalyi then moved on to athletes and people doing business in, you know, intense workplace environments. And yeah, the large body of evidence is that flow does seem to be associated with higher levels of creativity, increased levels of productivity, higher levels of athletic performance. An interesting wrinkle in all of that is nearly all of that research is correlational. We don't know actually, if flow causes higher, higher levels of productivity or higher levels of creativity. Most of that research is usually survey-based retrospective self-reports. So we ask you to engage in some sort of creative task. And then afterwards, we ask you about if you experience flow or not. And we can link higher levels of flow with higher levels of creativity. But we didn't since we didn't do an experiment, since we didn't have a control group, the sort of things we can't make strong causal claims. And so that's one limitation of a lot of the flow research is even though there's a giant body of it and there's a lot of benefits that seem associated with flow, the causal linkages associated with those benefits are still not well tested.
Soterios Johnson It seems kind of like flow is kind of, in my mind related to meditation in a way as meditation, a kind of flow or is flow a kind of meditation?
Richard Huskey That's interesting. People ask me that. And one of the core distinctions that I think about between flow and meditation is flow is generally a really active experience. Your that would be what we might call a task-positive experience where you're very actively engaged in some sort of active physical or mental task whereas meditation tends to be a little bit more inward focused, a little bit more task negative. So I think that that's one of the core distinctions between between the two, because meditation certainly is a practice that can be difficult. People can be it can, it can vary on this challenge-skill balance. But I think one of the key differences is that, you know, during flow, you're very actively doing some sort of task.
Soterios Johnson Right. So, what are some of the benefits to being in a flow state?
Richard Huskey Absolutely. So one is just pure enjoyment. Csikszentmihalyi described it as experiencing flow is the secret to happiness. And for me, one of the things that I really like about experiencing flow is it's incredibly egalitarian. You don't have to have a fancy set of skis, to pay for an expensive lift ticket on the mountain or like you don't have to have the best, you know, sports equipment or guitar or whatever. You can experience flow running, you can experience flow in nature. You can experience flow and creative pursuits. It's something that people can experience across all these different ways of of finding recreation or leisure enjoyment. And that's that's to me, one of the coolest parts of flow. The other benefits that are associated with flow is people -- we already talked about creativity, enhanced performance, higher levels of productivity -- but flow is also associated with a number of mental health well-being outcomes. So one thing that people know is that experiencing flow is associated with higher levels of resilience against burnout in a stressful working environment. Recent research actually that came out of China right when the COVID lockdowns in China started showed that people that experienced flow more during the lockdown had higher levels of well-being relative to people that didn't experience flow as much during the lockdown. So really, flow is associated with a number of mental health and well-being outcomes in addition to just high levels of enjoyment or creativity, those sort of things.
Soterios Johnson It all sounds really so great. I have to ask, are there any downsides to flow?
Richard Huskey That's a you know, there are people that have tried to make the case that experiencing flow might be a sort of gateway drug to addiction. I don't think the evidence for that is really well demonstrated, but it's something people have potentially worried about, particularly addiction to media and these sort of things. But really, most of that has been more speculation and I think actually strong empirical evidence. So I wouldn't say that there's a lot of well-documented downsides to experiencing flow now.
Soterios Johnson Right. So if people wanted to kind of integrate it into their lives, they wanted to get the benefits of it. Is there anything we can do to foster being in a flow state? Like a practice?
Richard Huskey Yeah, absolutely. I think practice is actually exactly where I was going to go with my answer. Flow occurs for things that are high difficulty that you're also really skilled at, and that only comes with practice through experience. As an example,... I'm categorically pretty terrible at yoga, but it's something that I've wanted to become better at. And over the last year or so, I've really dedicated myself to a yoga practice, and most of that last year was very much not a flow experience and a lot of frustration, a lot of embarrassment as I'm doing yoga in my living room and not able to hold a pose. But really only in the last couple of months as I finally built up a sufficient skill set. Have some of my sessions actually started to feel like a flow experience, and that's been extraordinarily rewarding. And that's that's, I think, a good way to think about when and how flow will occur. It's something that comes through practice. It's something that comes through skill acquisition and something that comes through mastery. And so if you're looking for ways to find flow in your life, I would look for something where you already have developed a mastery or are looking to develop a mastery and try to seek out that opportunity more frequently.
Soterios Johnson And it sounds like it could be anything, whether it's yoga or cooking or gardening...
Richard Huskey Yeah, absolutely. A difficult recipe in the kitchen. Actually, one of my favorite examples and part of the reason why we use video games in the scanner is -- Csikszentmihalyi has called games the flow experience par excellence. You know games are really an opportunity for people to demonstrate skill, high levels of skill. Games can often dynamically adjust the difficulty depending on how well people are doing. If you read the video games research literature, and if you go to, you know, an industry video games industry conference, you'll hear a lot about people talking about designing games for flow. And so, yeah, if you're, you know, games can be a source of flow cooking in the kitchen, just building Legos with, you know, with your kids running. One thing we know after 50 years of research is that people can experience flow during almost any task. So long as those conditions are met.
Soterios Johnson It almost falls in line with the advice that mind experts give that, you know, it's always it's very healthy for the mind to constantly be learning something.
Richard Huskey Absolutely.
Soterios Johnson Is it easier for some people to achieve flow than others?
Richard Huskey It is, in fact. It's something that we we know a little bit about. So there's a couple of research teams that have investigated this, and there are some pretty neat findings. One thing that they've discovered is that -- researchers call this flow proneness or people's propensity to experience flow. And research on twin studies, that's way of investigating how much of somebody is characteristics are derived by nature or their genes or nurture or their environment that they get brought up in. Twin studies have shown that flow proneness is at least partially heritable, so it potentially has some genetic component. And then neurally if we look at that, one of the things that we see is that people that are more likely to experience flow actually have more dopamine receptors in parts of their brain associated with the reward processing. Now, dopamine does a lot of different things in addition to just processing reward. But one of the things that we've discovered is that the more dopamine receptors people have, the more likely they are to have higher flow propensity.
Soterios Johnson Hmm. What are you looking at next in your research?
Richard Huskey Yeah. So we've spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on what the brain is doing during flow. And we developed some, I think, clever experimental paradigms for doing that. So we've we've been busy trying to solve this correlational problem that I described earlier, figure out a way to actually causally induce flow that will let us move beyond correlational claims to actually make causal claims. And we've done that in a way that has let us get some insights into what the brain is doing when people are experiencing flow. And so with this kind of foundation in place, the next thing we're looking to do is actually link experiencing flow with some of these well-being outcomes that we've we've we've talked about. So for a long period of time, we know that experiencing flow is correlated or associated with a variety of well-being outcomes. And where we're trying to go next -- we have the grant proposal out right now to do this -- is to actually link these neural responses, experimentally induced neural responses with well-being outcomes so we can make stronger claims about how and why experiencing flow is associated with well-being.
Soterios Johnson Right. Can you just talk briefly about like how you're going about doing that or how you propose to do it?
Richard Huskey Yes. So it's going to be a longitudinal experiment where we have people come in over several weeks and experiment, you know, go into one of three experimental conditions or a flow condition or two non-flow conditions, one where the task difficulty is really high or one where the task difficulty is really, really low. Right? So there's a mismatch. And we're going to have people have this flow-inducing experience or not across several weeks. And during that time we're also going to probe various well-being outcomes and then we're going to stop the flow induction. We're going to stop our experiment, but we're going to continue to measure people's well-being, to look to see how durable that well-being experience is after people have stopped experiencing flow.
Soterios Johnson It's very exciting and very, very interesting. I'm sure a lot of people will be interested to find out what you what you discover.
Richard Huskey Yeah, well, I hope so. I hope we get to I hope we get to do this project. And if not, we'll find some other way of pulling it off. But from my read of the literature, it's one of the most important next steps is if we're I don't think there's any real downsides to experiencing flow. If you can find ways in your life to experience enjoyment, especially in these really difficult and weird times that we seem to be living in right now, then that's that's really wonderful. But if we can also demonstrate that experiencing flow is really associated with these important well-being outcomes, we can start to think about what are reasonable mental health targets that we can work towards, what are what are viable interventions for achieving those targets and so on.
Soterios Johnson Absolutely. Well, this has been really great. Thank you so much for sharing your work.
Richard Huskey Hey, thank you so much for the time to to chat and the opportunity to do this. It's been a real pleasure.
Soterios Johnson Richard Huskey is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication. He directs the Cognitive Communication Science Lab and is a researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain. You can find out more about his work on our website: ucdavis.edu/odcast. If you like this podcast, check out another UC Davis podcast Unfold. Season 4 explores the most cutting-edge technologies and treatments that help advance the health of both people and animals. Join Public Radio Veterans and Unfold hosts Amy Quinton and Marianne Russ Sharp as they unfold stories about the people and animals affected the most by this research. I'm Soterios Johnson and this is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas.