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The 'flow' of peak performance

Story highlights
  • Research shows that a flow state can heighten creativity and performance
  • Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the concept of "flow" in the 1970s

(CNN) This summer, recreational climber J.B. MacKinnon stood beneath a short but difficult climbing route in Cheakamus Canyon, north of Squamish, British Columbia. When he first looked up the vertical rock face, he felt intimidated and anxious about getting up the route. But instead of seeking an easier route, he focused on the activity itself and became absorbed in the moment.

As soon as he started pulling himself up the rock, his climbing felt comfortable and easy.

"My fear vanished almost instantly," said MacKinnon, author of "The Once and Future World" and "The 100-Mile Diet." "Every hold felt secure. It was as though I had climbed the route before, even though I never had. And then, before I knew it, I was at the top."

During that climb, MacKinnon experienced what psychologists refer to as a "flow" state.

"Flow is a psychological state when you're completely absorbed in the task at hand," sports psychologist Sue Jackson described. "You're totally in the present moment."

Jackson is a leading "flow" researcher who studied under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist and professor who pioneered the concept of flow in the 1970s.

After decades of studying and interviewing musicians, artists, athletes and even surgeons, Csikszentmihalyi found that a flow state often heightens creativity, performance and even fulfillment, leading to a richer quality of experience.

Mirinda Carfrae of Australia prepares for the swim section of Ironman Austria in 2016.

During flow, Mirinda Carfrae says, "everything is just clicking." Carfrae is a world champion triathlete and Ironman competitor. "Time seems to speed by. You feel super strong, in control. When (flow) happens, it's like poetry in motion."

David Laney typically goes into a flow state during long-distance races.

"There are days when you are invincible," said David Laney, a Nike trail running coach and UltraRunning magazine's 2015 male ultra-runner of the year. When you are in flow, he said, you are "just so confident and calm. There's nothing that you can't do."

Michael Ankeny says flow helps you "enjoy every moment to the fullest."

Michael Ankeny, an American alpine ski racer and member of the US National Ski Team, shared his own flow experience: "When I got into the start gate, there was no question in my mind that I was going to ski well. I didn't really have to think about a whole lot. Everything came naturally, organically, and all of the distractions (such as) the 40,000-plus fans, you don't even hear or see them until you're through the finish line."

Alexi Pappas at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Flow can be exhilarating and may even feel like an out of body experience.

"The feeling of flow was almost like I was watching myself in the race as I was in the race," Olympic runner Alexi Pappas said. "In my mind, I was pleasantly amused and proud of myself while doing the act itself."

Experts say flow is as natural to the human experience as joy or sadness or boredom. Anyone can experience flow -- and probably has, even without knowing it.

Surgeons also experience flow, said Dr. Charles Limb.

"When you think about people with exceptional talents, those are the kind of flow states that we admire and crave and want to understand," said Dr. Charles Limb, a surgeon and researcher on creativity and the brain. "But I think that on an everyday level, creativity and flow states are in almost everything we do, just to a less amazing extreme."

Though no two flow states are exactly alike, Csikszentmihalyi found common threads of the experience. He identified nine dimensions that are present during flow:

  • One's perception of the challenge of the activity and one's own skills are balanced, perhaps even slightly extended.
  • Goals of the activity are clear.
  • Feedback during the activity is immediate and unambiguous, so one can tell how well he or she is doing as the activity progresses.
  • Concentration intensifies, and worries about the past or future dissipate.
  • A sense of control arises.
  • Action and awareness merge.
  • The sense of self and self-consciousness disappears.
  • The experience is autotelic, done for its own sake; it is intrinsically rewarding.
  • Time is transformed, sometimes slowing down or passing rapidly.

In more mundane circumstances, flow can be experienced when you're driving down the highway, listening to a favorite soundtrack, or when you're scrambling to finish a college paper in the late hours of the night. Hours will pass in what feels like minutes, and a sense of euphoria and loss of self-consciousness will kick in.

"For me, the most distinctive part of flow is the sense of ease," said Noa Kageyama, a Julliard professor, performance psychologist and accomplished violinist. "You're not worried about what's going to happen."

Though the neurological and physiological roots of flow are not definitively understood, Limb suggests there might be evidence that some of the normal activities of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain most directly responsible for creativity, are suspended.

"One of the emerging models is that when somebody is spontaneously creative in a flow state, the brain is shutting down its own capacity to self-monitor," Limb said. "The brain is trying to avoid suppressing the formation of novel ideas or novel connections or novel insights. During these activities, the brain is deciding, 'OK, for me to do this activity well, I cannot be self-conscious about what I'm doing. If I am, it will not be done well.' "

By quieting the mind, turning off the inner critic, practicing mindfulness and shifting focus to the activities at hand, experts say, anyone can experience flow.

"Flow helps us to live a more enjoyable life, even if the circumstances of our life are difficult, because we're open to challenge, open to extending ourselves. We're achieving things. We're creating things, and we're moving forward," Jackson said. "That can happen wherever our starting point is."