October 6, 2015

Where Meditation, Flow, Neuroscience & Spirituality Meet.

brain cogs


Think about when you are at your absolute best, doing something you enjoy. Do you have to think about it, or does it just flow?

If you know what I’m talking about, you’ve likely experienced a flow state. In a flow state, consciousness dims, and in what feels like something taking over, the subconscious rises to the forefront of mind, facilitating maximum human performance. Flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Behind flow states is some complex neurobiology, at the heart of which is a brain state called transient hypofrontality. Transient hypofrontality is characterized by a temporary lessening of brain activity, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for logic, decision making, self-auditing, and spatial orientation, among other very important things.

But these three are important, because in a flow state we no longer apply logic to our thoughts, we don’t really make conscious decisions—the inner critic is rendered mute—and in extreme cases one may even lose feeling of body orientation. Not only does it feel great, but also it induces personal growth like no other mode of consciousness can.

If you’re flowing, you’re growing.

And all of this gets even more interesting, because transient hypofrontality also happens to be one of the most distinguishable indicators of someone in deep meditation.

Throughout history, Eastern cultures have been interested in training their minds via some form of spirituality. This was done primarily by meditation, in which they honed their focus to achieve a calm demeanor and feelings of self-transcendence.

These practices often strive for a nondual awareness, which essentially means the loss of ego or loss of self. This is very similar, if not the same, as experiencing extreme flow. Intense focus and presence of mind are necessary to achieve this. Meditative practices have shown to help practitioners induce flow states. Some martial arts and yoga practices act as engineered flow activities, as well.

During flow the mind feels taken over by something beyond consciousness. As a result, these experiences have traditionally been taken out of context. They are likely responsible for beliefs of channeling God or the Universe. In his book, Waking Up, neuroscientist, Sam Harris points out that brain states of flow and self-transcendence are likely behind much mysticism and many of the world’s religions.4

But despite the mysticism to which many ascribe these states, meditation’s positive effect on consciousness cannot be denied.

All conscious thought depends on underlying causes which are themselves not conscious or controlled. The subconscious mind is the real architect of our lives; consciousness is merely an interface for experience.

Free-will may be part of the mind, but if watch closely we find that, if anything, it’s very limited. Modern neuroscience can back up this statement. But the point is, everything we think and do is generally a product of deeper brain functions than we’re capable of understanding.

Knowing this about the mind, we can think of becoming a better person in terms of developing the subconscious. Since the future is unpredictable, the idea is to learn skills in the moment that have broad applications going forward.

How might we do that?

We think in English. So we can think better if we read.
We think in causal connections of ideas. The more we know, the better.
We can improve coordination by practicing functional movement skills.
We can self-regulate better by paying more attention to the mind.

This list applies to almost any learned skill. The subconscious thrives on learning. And not just ideas, but also movements, balance, mental techniques, and maybe even personality traits.

But learning of this sort depends on something very important: focus.

So now, we’re back where we started with meditation, which sharpens focus, among other things, without the need of mysticism.

Meditation is a means of mind-management.

It hones the ability to focus in the moment and it primes the subconscious for the total absorption needed to achieve flow states and skill mastery.

The idea of training the spirit just means training the subconscious. It’s learning new things to become better versions of ourselves. The brain really likes to learn new things. It hooks us up with feel-good neurotransmitters whenever it does.

Give it a try!




Hacking Enlightenment with Flow States


Author:  Justin Testerman

Apprentice Editor: Jessica Chardoulias/ Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/ Jean-Remy Duboc

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

ajmarr3 Jun 8, 2019 9:31am

A Different take on Flow and how to achieve it

Presented for your consideration is the first explanation of flow states, which are the hallmark of positive or ‘peak’ experiences, from the perspective of affective neuroscience. The explanation is simple, and its procedural proof is even simpler, and can be demonstrated in minutes. Both are derived from a little book on the neuro-psychology of resting states. The expanded explanation of flow is on pp. 82-86, and its procedural ‘proof’ is on pp. 51-52. My book is based on the research of the distinguished affective neuro-scientist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who was kind to vet the book for accuracy and endorse the finished work.

A summary of my hypothesis is below.

In affective neuroscience, it is a truism that dopamine systems, which mediate attentive arousal, are activated by continuous positive act-outcome discrepancy, when from moment to moment behavior is adjusted to match the positive surprises or discrepancies from what has been expected. Discrepancy theories of motivation describe how disparate activities such as gambling, creativity, and meaningful behavior all elicit dopaminergic activity, which fixes attention, promotes learning, and motivates behavior, but is felt as arousal, not pleasure.

Pleasure on the other hand is mediated by opioid systems that are activated not only by physical pleasures (eating, drinking, sex), but also by neuro-muscular inactivity. To wit, muscular relaxation induces opioid release (which is why it feels good to be relaxed) which is also suppressed by muscular tension.

Because the nuclei or nerve cells for dopamine and opioid systems are located proximally in the brain, and can mutually activate each other, it follows logically that any informative contingencies which simultaneously elicit both relaxation and attentive arousal will accentuate both dopamine and opioid activity and will be felt as a state of heightened arousal and pleasure, or as an ecstatic state or peak experience.

This is the logic behind so called ‘flow’ states, which are states of pleasurable arousal that demonstrably map to positive act-outcome discrepancy and covert muscular inactivity or relaxation. My hypothesis has the virtue of simplicity and is also easily refutable. No need for between group designs or brain scans, it simply works. But again, if it doesn’t than the hypothesis is false, and it pays not to quit your day job. (My day job is as a marketing manager for a New Orleans tech firm. I am academically trained in behavioral psychology, but academia I fear was never to my taste.)

Delighted for your any criticisms of comments.


Art Marr



Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

Justin Testerman

Justin Testerman is an engineering graduate currently employed as a math and mindfulness tutor. He’s an avid reader and practitioner of meditation. He also trains and teaches various martial arts based fitness routines. Check out his personal blog.