Understanding Flow States and the “Default Mode Network”
If you’re trying to cut back and simplify your life, then you really need to understand the impact that your activities have on your brain and how this alters the very chemical balance of your grey matter.
Once you recognize this, you can then start to be more aware of what you’re doing to your mind and of how you can make sure you’re getting the rest and recovery that you need.
Focus, Alert and Stress
Whenever you’re working, whenever you’re being productive and even when you’re playing games or watching TV, your brain is in a state of focus and alert. What this means, is that it’s wired and fixed on what’s going on because it thinks it must be important and must require your focus. In these circumstances, our brain acts just as though we’re facing off against a lion or otherwise doing something that is a matter of life and death.
Our brain therefore produces cortisol, dopamine, norepinephrine and we become highly focussed on whatever is happening right in front of us. This also causes our heartrate to increase and means blood is directed away from the important-yet-less-pressing functions in our body such as our immune system and digestion. In the short term this makes us more focussed and productive, in the long run it takes its toll and makes us ill.
A flow state is what happens when you’re incredibly engaged with something because it’s dangerous or just fascinating. Similar chemicals to the regular “stress” state are produced alongside others like endorphins and anandamide. In this state, we become so focussed on what’s happening in front of us that we stop thinking and lose our inner monologue entirely. This results in heightened performance and feelings of exhilaration. In neuroscience the term for this state is “temporohypofrontality”.
Default Mode Network
Conversely, the default mode network is what happens when we’re in the opposite state. This is when our brain is allowed to wander and we find ourselves daydreaming or making plans. It often occurs when walking or when engaging in menial tasks like washing up.
The default mode network is just as important as these other states as it lets us recover and helps us to overcome stress. What’s more, it’s associated with heightened creativity.
The point is not that one of these states is “better” than the other. Rather, we need to get all three in equal doses and everything in between to have a happy, calm and relaxed mind.