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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Flow State

 
 
We often use the phrase "in the zone" without entirely knowing what that means. At a glance, the phrase seems to refer to being really focused on something, but it's not considered a physical phenomenon but merely a state of mind. Yet, this isn't actually the case. While simply being focused on a task is a state of mind, there is a much more potent physical anomaly known as flow state. The coveted flow state is not merely a state of mind, but an actual physical process that deeply affects the person experiencing it. During flow state, the recipient experiences a rush of hormones, including enough endorphins to make the person in question experience a sensation similar to morphine... except it's over 100x (!) more powerful.

What's going on here? How does merely being focused on a task give you a sort of high that's 100 times stronger than morphine?

To understand what flow state is and how to reach it, one must first understand "monkey brain". As Jordan Peterson might put it, our heads are full of the constant and incessant chatter of various demons. "Monkey brain" is our default mode of existing; it consists of countless narratives and background processes that are so numerous that they can't be completely mapped out with any degree of accuracy. There's this common misconception that we don't use all of our brain, that we only use (insert a small percentage here) and that we would reach enlightenment if we could only unlock the rest of our brain.

This isn't actually true; it's true that not all of our brain matter is used just for thinking, but there's a reason for that. Our brains are full of tissue and fluids that help it maintain and run properly. The parts of our brain that carry out cognitive tasks are always active in some way, except maybe for synapses for old memories that haven't been accessed in a very long time (ancient memories that stay dormant until you suddenly encounter something that brings that memory back to the forefront, like when you suddenly feel nostalgia from a single smell or object).

Yet, our heads are always full of irrelevant bullshit. We are bombarded with so much physical stimulation from our phaneron* that it hinders our ability to be at our very best engagement at any particular moment.
 
*Phaneron: The set of senses and cognitive processes that perceive information and relay it to our consciousness. At any given moment, you are being bombarded with millions of pieces of information. Something as simple as looking at this screen is relaying unfathomable amounts of information to you via your phaneron.

While we like to playfully call this default mode "monkey brain" because it speaks to our most base, and primal instincts (feeling hungry, or physically tired, or sleepy, or horny, or craving salt, or sugar, or nicotine, or feeling tempted to check your social media, or daydreaming about arguments you won't even ever have, et cetera), but it actually has a scientific name. It's called Default Mode Network, and it actually is a network in every sense of the word.

It's not one part of the mind, it's many. It's a complicated network of connections that are mostly active during the day when we're fully-awake, and the prime parts involved are the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule.

There's a metaphor for this that I'm surprised I've never seen anyone else make, so I'll remedy that by making it here. Our Default Mode Network or monkey brain is essentially a bunch of branch predictions in a CPU.

In computer chips, there's something called "branch prediction" which is essentially a tool used to save time by keeping track of previous activity and making future decisions based on that past activity. Branch prediction is important because it speeds up the computer drastically by allowing it to predict what you'll do next, then pre-emptively starting that task for you. For example, if you were to run a program at exactly 4:00 PM every day, your CPU might develop faster load times for that program since it can now anticipate that program being run every day and it can process some of the necessary information in advance that way it will be faster to execute.

Branch prediction is necessary because otherwise, everything would take drastically longer to load since every time you opened something or started a program, it would be as if you were running it for the first time. There's a lot more involved with this process, like caching, but we won't go into that stuff.

Basically, our brains do that too. That's why Pavlovian Conditioning works so damn well on us. If every day at 2:00 in the afternoon you eat a cheeseburger, then after a while you'll start salivating uncontrollably at 1:50. Your body and mind will use its own form of branch prediction to carry out tasks based on your past behavior and lifestyle. If you always eat a cheeseburger at 2:00, your body and mind are going to start pre-emptively preparing for that burger moments before the usual time. It's not just small stuff like your salivary glands, either. Your stomach might increase the acidity of its acid in preparation for digestion, and your hunger hormones will kick in and urge you to carry out the task of getting a cheeseburger and cramming it down your gullet.

 

While those are much more specific examples, if you usually have the same few things for lunch, the likelihood of you craving those specific things later increases exponentially by virtue of reinforcement. Each time you engage in a previously established habit, your body and mind are going to reinforce that habit even further.

Your Default Mode Network is full of these habits; everything from how much you sleep to how often you have feelings of doubt and insecurity and even your breathing and posture are included. These systems go so deep that even tiny fluctuations in hormones are included. This is why anti-depressants work well on people who don't have any actual problems--usually when a person is feeling depressed and they go to see a therapist, a good thing for the therapist to do is find out if they're feeling depressed because of their problems or if they actually have depression. The reason why it's important to distinguish between the two is because a person with chronic depression will feel depressed even when everything in their life is objectively going great for them, whereas someone who's actually downtrodden might not feel depressed once their problems have been alleviated.

As JP put it, he would have people come in saying, "I'm depressed." Dr. Peterson would ask them, "Alright, how's your financial situation? How's your relationship with your family? Besides feeling depressed, how healthy are you?" and if they answered, "All my closest relatives are dead, I have no friends, I have chronic health isuses and I'm broke," then JP would know, "Alright, so you don't feel like crap for no reason, you feel like crap because your life sucks and we have to fix those problems for you to feel better."

But if instead they answered, "I have a close and loving family, I'm quite healthy and I'm financially well-off," then the problem is likely an issue with their hormonal balance. Their brain isn't releasing the amounts of serotonin or dopamine that it should be, or their receptors aren't using them correctly, so things that are supposed to make a person feel good simply aren't. This chronic lack of positive reinforcement also causes a chain reaction of negativity bias and increases negative arousal and stimuli across the board by squashing positive emotions. That being said, giving anti-depressants to a person like this will usually work wonders, but giving anti-depressants to a person with a genuinely awful life won't help much in most cases, because their hormones are functioning fine. They're just feeling like crap because they have so many tangible problems, and giving them anti-depressants won't solve those problems on its own.

Often in the mental health circle you see people recommending meditation as the antidote for monkey mind. And that's not bad advice, there is empiracle evidence that supports it. The reasoning behind meditation being seen as an escape from the Default Mode Network is the simple fact that things like breathing exercises and contemplation help relax the body and that inward reflection can silence the constant chatter inside.

But then there's me, who's shilling the exact opposite of meditation--bombarding your mind with insane amounts of mental stimuli. Whereas meditation is a way to empty the mind and soothe your thoughts, flow state is your mind handling the maximum amount of information that it's physically capable of.

The most fascinating thing about flow state by far is how your brain uses branch prediction to compute information. Earlier I mentioned that our bodies reinforce our habits through a sort of biological branch prediction, but during flow state, you can process information at blistering speeds using the same idea. How do I know this?

Because during flow state, the part of your brain that plans things, makes decisions and thinks ahead--the prefrontal cortex--is bypassed.

During flow state, a person goes straight from receiving stimuli to execution--the entire cognitive process of thinking about something is thrown out the window. This is not to be confused with hypofrontality, which is when the prefrontal cortex isn't working properly due to illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, the bypassing of the PFC seems similar to hypofrontality but with completely opposite results. A person experiencing hyporfrontality is incredibly impulsive as their brain isn't properly using the PFC to think critically about their decisions. Although flow state is sometimes called "transient hypofrontality," as it's physiologically the same as hypofrontality but only for a brief, transient moment.

However, unlike with normal hypofrontality, during flow state the PFC is bypassed and instead branch prediction kicks in to allow you to process information and make calculations at a speed of only a mere 13 miliseconds. To put into perspective how fast that is, the blink of an eye is about 350 miliseconds. Another thing that occurs is that our brains switch from beta waves to alpha theta (AT) waves. I won't go much into alpha waves, but theta waves are what largely link creative processes from separate and distant parts of the brain, so this shift in wavelength makes it substantially easier to compile creative juices so to speak.

Another thing that happens is you block out outside information, so a person deep in flow state will lose track of time and not notice things happening around them because that's just how focused they are. It can get so intense that you might not notice if your surroundings were on fire because 100% of your attention is on the task at hand.

Now, enough about what flow state is... how do you cause it?

Turns out, a metric shit-ton of research has already been done on this topic, but it looks like this: Push yourself to doing a cognitively-demanding task that is reaching the upper limit of what you're capable of for an extended period of time.

What does that mean? It means that if the task is even slightly too easy, you slip into boredom; and if it's slightly too difficult, it becomes anxiety.

However, I've always thought that the greatest and most potent form of flow state was when an unfathomably huge challenge was being tackled by someone with equally unfathomable skill. Technically if we look at proportional abilities, you don't have to be skilled at something to enter flow state; the task at hand merely needs to be perfectly matched with your current skill level.

However, I feel like the more skilled a person is at, say, a fast-faced and highly-competitive activity, the more muscle memory and branch predicitons will be at their disposal during flow state--and the harder the task is, the more information they'll have to process during hypofrontality.

An excellent example of this is watching two chess grandmasters of 2400 ELO or higher competing against each other during a blitz match (blitz matches are when you only have a few minutes on the clock and both players have to make their moves before running out of time, and if you run out of time you autmoatically lose). Both players posess unfathomable skill, however they're each playing against an unfathomably difficult opponent. I believe flow state is wide-spread in high-ranking competitive chess play, as well as esports.

I've found a few ways to reliably induce flow state on myself; one is playing a little game called Devil Daggers.

Devil Daggers is an arcade-like game where you have no lives; you spawn on a platform and endless waves of enemies are thrown at you until you  touch something, then you die. There is no way to beat the game, only the person above you on the leaderboard, as the goal is to survive as long as possible. The competition is so fierce that the leaderboard will distinguish score time down to the exact millisecond, as a single milisecond can put you above or below another player's score.

 

In Devil Daggers, there's a ridiculous amount of management. This is because there are a few specific "enemy" types, if you will. Here's how it works:

You have infinite amunition, so to speak. However, your range attacks start off relatively weak. They get stronger by killing spawners and special enemies who drop crystals. When you collect these crystals, your attack becomes stronger. However, the crystals float towards you when you aren't shooting, and they float away when you are. So you can't just hold down "fire" the entire time, otherwise you won't get any crystals and you'll stay weak and vulnerable. But you need to basically be constantly firing because there's such an overwhelming number of enemies after you.

The spawners arrive and they spawn a group of skull enemies that chase you down. If you touch any, you die. Also, they're faster than you. So you want to keep the horde of skulls from getting too big or too close because it's easy to get swarmed and killed. But you also want to take out the spawners as fast as you can, otherwise they'll keep spouting out more skulls forever until they're destroyed.

Then the giant spiders show up, and the giant spiders will eat all of your crystals (which prevents you from levelling up) and not only does it eat them, but it will turn them into spider eggs which, when hatched, will spew out tiny baby spiders all over the arena. The giant swarm of tiny spiders is very fast and can quickly cover every inch of the arena if you aren't careful.

Then the giant flying centipedes arrive, and they are packed with crystals. They're super hard to kill because you have to shoot all of the crystals in their body and if even a single one remains they won't die. The good thing about these enemies is if you kill them they drop tons of crystals to make you stronger, but the bad news is they take up a ton of space, can come up from the ground out of nowhere, and of course if it touches you then you die.

There are more enemy types like the thorns and the Leviathan but I won't really get into those. You have only one weapon at your disposal which is your hand, which shoots bones out of it once you start the game by touching the devil dagger. If you hold down the fire button it fires in a stream like an automatic weapon, but if you just click once it fires like a shotgun, giving you the ability to swap between automatic or shotgun fire on the fly. You can also fire off at the ground to rocket-jump or send richochet. However, when you hold down the trigger the crystals will slowly float away from you, and they float towards you when you aren't firing. This is a clever sort of "reload" mechanic, because you never actually have to reload--you can keep holding down the trigger forever if you wanted to--but in doing so the crystals will only get further and further away from you, so you have to choose when to fire to kill enemies and when to stop for a second to collect crystals.



 
The entire arena is just a small round platform, so you have to be careful not to fall off. So then your priority for survival becomes, in no particular order:
 
  • Don't let any of the skulls touch you
  • Don't let the swarm get too big
  • Don't forget to take out the spawners or the swarm will get bigger
  • Don't forget to take out the spiders or they'll turn your crystals into eggs
  • Don't forget to take out the centipedes or they'll hog the arena and you'll never upgrade your weapon
  • Don't hold the trigger down too much or the crystals will float away
  • Don't fall off the edge

Basically you have to try to do all of these things at the same time and should you make the slightest error or lapse in judgement it's back to the beginning. As soon as you touch anything or anything touches you it's over and you die.

How long you last is entirely dependent on split-second decision-making and with so much to keep track of in so little time, and it perfectly scales to a player's skill. The game gets harder the longer you survive, spawning stronger enemies and more of them, meaning it largely scales to a player's skill. Because the game's difficulty increases at roughly the same rate a player's skill will increase, it matches that chart above where we see how Flow State is entered when the difficulty of a task is perfectly matched to the skill of the person carrying it out. If a task is too easy, you slip into boredom, and if it's too difficult you aren't engaged and instead feel either anxious or apathetic.

Not to mention, Devil Daggers has a leaderboard that teases you with tiny fragments of time, but it does something else that's interesting--it uploads the replay of your best run whether or not you want it to. This means that there are no trade-secrets, the best player in the world has his best gameplay uploaded on the leaderboard for everyone to watch if they'd like, allowing people to figure out tricks and techniques by watching the replays of players who are better than them. This goes both ways, whenever you beat your previous record the recording of your play will be added to the leaderboard next to your name.

This involintary publicity creates a sort of community in that everyone who's ever played the game has a spot somewhere on the leaderboard with a video of their best score right next to it. You can't talk to the other players as their is no chat function, so essentially the only connection players have with each other is the leaderboard and their replays.

Another game that's frequently caused me to enter Flow State and one that I've mentioned positively before is Celeste.

The brutally difficult platforming and tight controls make for a fast-paced and intense experience that's easy to get lost in.

 




There's something euphoric about the rush of mental stimulation experienced during Flow State. I can only imagine the intensity that esport players in the highest upper echelons feel during the highest levels of play.

The first example that comes to mind for me is seeing how Hungry Box managed to beat Armada in Smash Melee using Jiggly Puff. To the average onlooker, it just looks like he's floating around and easily dodging the attacks of Armada's Fox, but in reality he's made it look easy through thousands of hours of trial and error. Behind the scenes, if you look on YouTube, there are hundreds of videos from various events and tournaments where he gets his ass handed to him routinely just for making the tiniest imperfections in his play. Sometimes a single pixel is enough to determine victory or defeat.

A professional Mortal Kombat 11 player named Brad Vaughn spoke out about this subject. After placing between 9 and 12 in the Chicago tournaments, he made a statement about the mental health of pursuing becoming a profesisonal esport player.

To praprase, he essentially said, "Everyone thinks it's the most fun job ever--you get to play a video game for a living. But in order to keep winning tournaments (and by extension, making money and paying your bills) you have to practice non-stop. Because if you take a break for too long, you might get rusty--and what if the other guy isn't taking a break? If you take a break, he might be training twice as hard. I'm taking a break from Mortal Kombat because it's become increadibly stressful."

One thing that's fascinating is how certain music can help induce flow state, and while Devil Daggers does nothing of the sort, Celeste does by design. In a video essay titled The Anxiety of Celeste and its Music, GameScoreFanfare dives into the compositional methods used to induce specific emotions and levels of focus across its levels. The video is linked below:

 

He aptly refers to a 2004 study in which researchers had two groups of test subjects play an old iteration of Doom. The first group played with the high-intensity music and the second group played without.

What the researchers found was that the two groups performed the same for the most part, however the group that played with the music had much higher cortisol levels. This would imply that while it didn't affect their performance in this specific game, the mere difference of hearing the intense soundtrack was enough to affect them phisiologically.

To summarize the video above, there are two kinds of stress, eustress and distress. Most people know what being in distress is; it's being overwhelmed with negative stress. But its cousin eustress is talked about far less frequently. Eustress is a positive, engaging form of stress, which refers to how a person feels when their body and mind are technically under stress, but happy about it and enjoying it. When you cram out an intense study session and you know you're guaranteed a good grade, that euphoric afterglow you feel would be eustress. Exercising for the first time can be distressful, but for those who exercise regularly, they feel eustress. The physical strain being put on the body actually feels... enjoyable.

Celeste's soundtrack has a lot in common with lofi-hip-hop, and lofi tracks are generally good at pulling you into a state of relaxed concentration. Look no further than this song for evidence of that and you'll see precisely what I mean:


These kinds of tracks are oozing with relaxed, focus-inducing melodies. They're also widely accessible and typically have no lyrics, making them multi-cultural in their effect. Since the laws of what notes and types of sounds induce what physiological changes in the human body are universal regardless of culture or upbringing, these types of things work on just about everyone.

Celeste's soundtrack does a wonderful job of first lulling the player into eustress and then gradually increasing into mildly distressing territory, just enough to help push them into flow state. The difficult platforming and tight-controls make it really easy for this to happen, and once you really get into it it's hard to get out.

That being said, the main factor in what types of games might enduce flow state isn't difficulty. Otherwise, it should be just as easy to enter it playing any challenging game. But I don't think I've ever entered flow state playing Dark Souls, and the reason why that likely will end up being the case for most players is because the game is slow and more tactical rather than requiring the super-fast precision of Devil Daggers or Celeste's B and C-side levels. The difficulty in Dark Souls comes from the mystery and lack of information presented to the player, as well as learning the intricacies of its deep combat system, not purely from speed and precision. Perhaps something like Sekiro or maybe Bloodborne would be a bit more likely to enter flow state in while playing since those games are faster and require more aggressive timing than the Souls games, escpeially Sekiro.
 

With that said, why might someone want to experience flow state in the first place other than to increase their cognitive performance in the task at hand?

It turns out there's a large roster of long-term benefits associated with flow, which includes but is not limited to:

  • Increased emotional regulation
  • More enjoyment derived from the tasks at hand
  • More intrinsic motivation to continue later on
  • Increased creativity
  • Faster learning and skill development

This isn't one that most sites or articles list as a benefit of flow state, but I have the sneaking suspicion it also helps with identity maintenance. To clarify, most of the time the phrase "identity maintenance" really means "persona maintenance", because it's referring to a person's indentity in a social group, AKA the persona they exhibit; when I say identity maintenance, I mean maintaing sanity by understanding yourself and your identity, not where you fit in socially.

The reason I believe this is because engaging in things you actually care about and enjoy can reinforce the quirks of your identity that lead you to like them. An artist being highly engaged and focused on their art on a regular basis reinforces the parts of their personality and identity that lead them to enjoying art, and perhaps the simplest way for someone to maintain their identity is to simply engage with it frequently.

If you ever feel like emptying your head or meditating isn't making the monkey mind shut up, consider trying the complete opposite and engaging so heavily in a cognitive task that the rest of the world just fades away.


And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.