NeuroFlow

My last post was a link to a video showcasing one of the best MTB Flow Trails out there right now, with features common to the genre: gradual and sustained downhill on mostly groomed trail surface, with berms (banked turns), jumps, drop-offs, and other stunts that can be strung together in a rhythmic cadence from top to bottom, reminiscent of a dance on dirt. But let’s talk about another kind of flow: the mental state we try to reach while on NeuroAdventures, and hopefully in life.

“Flow State” in the psychological/neuroscience sense is the place when everything is effortless, the events unfold as they happen, and you go with it. We always seek it in our adventure sports — surfing, snow skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, et al. It often occurs in other realms, too — when performing music, creating art, writing, even designing new products, software, processes, and ideas… When past and future disappear, and you are totally absorbed in the moment, you have reached the state of flow.

Now scientists have recently put a name to the system they have identified in the brain that is implicated in this exalted state: Default Mode Network (DMN). This is a neural network that comes into play when you are doing… nothing. When you are not involved in a task, or performing a mindless task, and your mind starts to wander, the area that lights up in a brain scan is the DMN. It acts as a bridge between the higher-order cognitive reasoning areas of the cerebral cortex and the deeply-embedded emotional limbic system, and retrieves memories from the hippocampus then ties them into the mix, as well, to provide a sense of past, present, and future, and an idea of our place in this timeline and our sense of separation from other people and our physical environment. Scientists liken its role to that of symphony conductor between the cognitive, emotional, and memory regions of the brain. It has also been called the brain’s “traffic cop,” allowing certain sensations and memories in, but filtering many, many of them out, to give us a reduced set of ideas to plan our next move. It’s one of the most recently evolved complex systems in the mammalian brain, and especially so for the human brain. Classical Freudian psychology called this system the ego. It is the voice in your head that replays its version of history for review, and projects possible scenarios in the future for your consideration and decision-making. It is critical for the higher-level planning and execution of complex ideas in novel circumstances, which has proved a key survival trait that humans possess more strongly than other (living) species, and has allowed us to flourish in nearly every climate and environment — including ones of our own invention.

And it is implicated in flow state, but not in a way you may be thinking: Flow state turns certain aspects of this DMN system off! That’s right, when we reach flow state, we stop projecting into the past and future, we turn off the chatter, we stop analyzing the present to decide our next move, and we just do. We just go.

A recent scientific paper put it thusly: “It is proposed that a necessary prerequisite to the experience of flow is a state of transient hypofrontality that enables the temporary suppression of the analytical and meta-conscious capacities of the explicit system.” (Italics added for emphasis… đŸ˜‰ )

Psychologists have also published frequently about the benefits of reaching flow state — whether through focused work or play or meditation or “mindfullness” or exercise, or even by ingesting certain psychoactive drugs like psilocybin and peyote and the lysergic acid diethylamide (normally known by 3 of its initials) in a controlled and professionally-supervised manner. They have proposed that reaching this flow state — by shutting off the DMN — can boost creativity by unlocking hidden and sometimes dormant regions of the brain to increase connections between these previously disparate areas. While doing so, it also removes judgement about the ideas, but still allows us to review them as an impassioned observer. Biologically, it can trigger the release of serotonin and dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, reduce the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), and can even alleviate the downsides of overactivity in the DMN system that manifest themselves as negative rumination about the past (depression) and obsessive worry about the future (anxiety).

Although the DMN set us free from being slaves to our environment, and allowed us to invent wondrous solutions to novel problems key to our survival (or, more likely in today’s world, to our economic state…), it can also hold us back. It can also make us sad, especially when it is overactive, and we don’t occasionally shut it off. When we don’t make it go away. Make it stop analyzing. And overanalyzing. And ruminating. And chattering.

So we have been advised for years to find ways to “live in the moment” — by Buddhist scholars and Eastern philosophers initially, and today by psychiatrists, therapists, sports psychologists, and others involved in the practice of advising us how to increase our levels of performance and find contentment in daily life. Another way to say this, in neuroscience-speak, is we should seek to occasionally, temporarily, shut off temporal and analytical regions of the DMN, to allow other regions of the brain to have their say, to enable us to go with the flow, to make us again feel connected. Easier said than done…

A key differentiator between one individual and another on their ability to reach flow state during an activity is experience — specifically, experience through focused practice of this activity, usually over many years. Think of musicians who can play and improvise effortlessly, artists who lose themselves for hours in their creations, computer analysts and programmers who can design and code late into the night without a break, athletes who can perform during competition automatically and without thought. Another way to increase focus and quickly reach the state of flow is to perform physical activities with perceived risk such that they demand our full attention. Sort of sounds like, wait for it, the so-called extreme sports…

I can say from personal experience that I have felt this sense of “flow” — and the disappearance of time and chattering thought — through a number of activities: downhill mountain biking, surfing, snow skiing, programming, database and system design, drawing, painting, and even just listening to music. Usually you don’t realize until it’s over that you were in this state. Then, it’s almost a shock, like, “wow, what just happened?” And it does leave you in a calm yet energized state.

So that brings us to the final 2 days of the Tahoe journey: NeuroAdventures Stop #1, Days 5 and 6, On the Way Home.

Day 5 was an example of “No Flow” after stumbling across something awesome in the woods near Grass Valley late that afternoon — a hand-built pathway named “Hoot Trail” with over 30 tabletop jumps and nearly as many berm turns descending gently over 1.3 miles through lime-green forest with whispering pines — and absolutely losing any chance of getting into flow state while riding it for the first time, due to my over-obsession with some failed technology, in this case the GoPro Karma Grip gimbal.

Day 6 was about finding the State of Flow, and a sense of redemption, by returning to Hoot Trail the next morning, setting-then-forgetting the GoPro/Gimbal, then just letting go and riding with 100% focus on the trail in front of me. The video evidence from both events is still in the edit room, so I will post them as they are completed.

No lesson learned here, really… Just some examples to illustrate that when it comes to Flow, some days you find it, some days you don’t… but the days you do keep you coming back for more!

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