the time of flow

Over at Nautilus—which, happily, has secured funding to continue its print edition from a group of well-heeled superfans—Heather Berlin writes about time and the flow state:

When our minds are under-stimulated, time often feels like it is moving in slow motion…[When] we are fully engaged, especially in the kind of “flow state” familiar to artists, athletes, and other top performers, our sense of time appears to speed up, or even to disappear entirely.

When a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 or The Legend of Zelda stopped working on my old Nintendo, I’d dutifully remove the cartridge, blow into it, and put it back in. This didn’t do anything, I’ve since learned, but the game would eventually start working again of its own accord as long as I kept at it. The ritual simply gave me the comforting illusion of control over an unpredictable outcome.

Just so with my flow state. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t; my attempts to encourage it amount to blowing into my own cartridge. (That sounded better in my head.)

According to Berlin, “the frontal regions of the brain that have been shown to be involved in time perception and impulse control are also involved in spontaneous creativity.” Our sense of time and our flow state are intimately linked—maybe that connection goes both ways?

In fMRI studies of improvising jazz musicians and rappers, a key portion of the prefrontal cortex shows an increase in activation. This area is known to be involved in intentional self-expression. Simultaneously, another portion of the brain slows down, this one responsible for self-monitoring and problem-solving. As we improvise, creativity ramps up, the inner critic cools off, and we soar into a timeless flow state. When flow fizzles, however, that inner critic is firing up when it’s supposed to lie low.

I suspect one reason this happens is that “the sense of time passing, producing its changes and progressions, is a capacity our brains evolved for adaptive reasons.” In other words, that inner critic didn’t evolve to make artists miserable but to keep artists out of the bellies of saber-toothed tigers. If this nugget of gray matter isn’t convinced it’s safe to relax and stop watching the clock, it remains on high alert. Each second continues to tick by, second-like, and flow remains frustratingly out of reach.

I’ve written before about my new reliance on Focusmate, the online accountability service that pairs you with a stranger over webcam so you can work silently in virtual solidarity. (Some dude is programming in another country while I write these words.) Sure, timers help us break up large tasks into manageable chunks, but Berlin’s article suggests another reason why time-based tools like Focusmate and the Pomodoro technique are effective at fomenting flow. They reassure the time-conscious inner critic that we won’t miss an important appointment or leave the stove on too long if we let ourselves get lost in timeless creative improvisation. We can relax.

The creative trance requires an essential part of us to lower its guard, even “sleep.” It’s not going to do that if it’s worried we’ll wake up under a tree with a long white beard. A timer provides basic reassurance that we won’t.

Speaking of which, my session is up.