I grew up in Durango, Colorado, and completed my bachelor’s degree in Boulder, CO, and master’s degree in Fort Collins, CO. Snow and mountains are in my blood. My parents joke that I’ve been skiing since I was three months old, when my dad would ski with me tucked into the front of his jacket. Alpine skiing, telemark skiing, and backcountry skiing have been some of my main hobbies throughout my life. Some of the reasons for this include community, being in nature, and enjoyable exercise, but the main reason that I enjoy skiing is because it puts me in a state of “flow.”
The concept of flow, pioneered by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is a state in which an individual is focused and fully absorbed in some task, generally one that is both challenging and rewarding (2014). Organized by Tinbergen’s four questions, there are a number of reasons why behaviors leading to a flow experience are important for humans.
Modern life has multifarious forms of stress–physical, environmental, psychological, and social–that bombard the individual constantly. As Robert Sapolsky discusses in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004), modern stressors might even cause a higher burden of stress than our ancestors may have had. In the face of these stressors, we need ways to help deal. Flow, and other states that take us out of our normal patterns of thinking, can help to alleviate some of the burden associated with constant stressors (see Lynn 2005). During a flow experience, like flying down a snowy mountain at 50mph, the mind is focused only on the immediate. Stress falls away, and is lessened after the experience as well.
What is now an adaptive trait for helping to deal with the stresses of the modern world has a long evolutionary history as well. The “living in the moment” feeling associated with flow, and the hyper-focus and skill that comes from it, would have been necessary for hunting and fighting. Those able to “turn off” their brains to focus fully on the task at hand, especially in dangerous, self- and community-threatening situations, would have been selected for over those who weren’t.
Flow experiences likely occur through cognitive mechanisms that help to stem the tide of an otherwise overwhelming amount of information in dangerous or threatening situations. Energy and attention go only to the absolutely necessary functions required for action in the moment: it’s not helpful to be worried about that thing your girlfriend said when an enemy is swinging a club at your head.
While the exact biomechanics of flow (and other dissociative states) are not fully understood, a gene, designated catechol O-methyltransferase, or COMT, has been identified that is a candidate for contributing to an individual’s propensity for absorption–a necessary component of flow. The presence of a gene that contributes to one’s ability to enter and maintain a state of flow suggests that this is a crucial aspect of the human experience that has been consistently selected for.
For more information, check out:
2014 Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Lichtenberg, Pesach, Rachel Bachner-Melman, Richard P. Ebstein, and Helen J. Crawford
2004 Hypnotic Susceptibility: Multidimensional Relationships with Cloninger’s Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire, COMT Polymorphisms, Absorption, and Attentional Characteristics. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 52(1): 47–72.
Lynn, Christopher Dana
2005 Adaptive and Maladaptive Dissociation: An Epidemiological and Anthropological Comparison and Proposition for an Expanded Dissociation Model. Anthropology of Consciousness 16(2): 16–49.
Sapolsky, Robert M.
2004 Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers / Robert M. Sapolsky. 3rd ed. New York: Times Books.