Is it possible to simultaneously be both intensely focused on and completely open to the present moment? To find ourselves so fully engaged in something that we lose all sense of self? To be so connected to what is that there is no longer a distinction between the connection and the connected, there’s only the experience? Research on creativity, meditation, and flow indicates that it is indeed possible to reach such a state of consciousness, and also provides insights into what happens in the brain when we do.
As Csikszentmihalyi has described it, the concept of flow involves an interesting decoupling of attention and awareness:
Big Learning Event Presentation | Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
And the question is what is the experience [of flow] like? So the first thing that anybody who is in the state will describe is that you are concentrated, your attention is focused… there comes a moment when your attention is so focused that you are not really aware of what you’re doing, you’re just simply acting out your knowledge, your skill, your training and effort without thinking about it.
It’s as if consciousness takes on a new perspective, no longer focusing on the “I” and what that “I” experiences, but somehow shifting focus to the experience itself.
Flow: The psychology of optimal experience | Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
[During the flow experience] loss of self-conscious does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness *of* the self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are… When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are. Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.
How does this balancing act of consciousness and self work? We see a similar dynamic happening with the executive and default networks. In flow, some areas of these networks are offline, highlighting certain aspects of the experience.
With decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex and executive network, we lose our sense of time, space, and self, enabling us to fill our awareness with and feel the experience of the moment.
Slow down your brain to get more done | Steven Kotler
In flow, parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down, shutting down. The technical term for this is transient, meaning temporary, hypo frontality. Hypo – H – Y – P – O – it’s the opposite of hyper means to slow down, to shut down, to deactivate. And frontality is the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that houses your higher cognitive functions, your sense of morality, your sense of will, your sense of self.
With decreased activity in the default mode network, we turn off our inner monologues and other internal distractions, allowing us to ground our awareness in and focus on the present experience.
Hack your brain’s default mode with meditation | Dan Harris
There was also a study out of Yale that looked at what’s called the default mode network of the brain. It’s a connected series of brain regions that are active during most of our waking hours when we’re doing that thing that human beings do all the time which is obsessing about ourselves, thinking about the past, thinking about the future, doing anything but being focused on what’s happening right now. Meditators not only turn off the default mode network of their brain while they’re meditating but even when they’re not meditating. In other words, meditators are setting a new default mode. And what’s that default mode? They’re focused on what’s happening right now. In sports this is called being in the zone. It’s nothing mystical. It’s not magical. You’re not floating off into cosmic ooze. You are just being where you are – big cliché in self-help circles is being in the now. You can use that term if you want but because it’s accurate. It’s slightly annoying but it’s accurate. It’s more just being focused on what you’re doing.
However, the description Csikszentmihalyi provides of the flow experience is not just a decrease of activity in the networks supporting executive and default awareness. It is actually an emergence of a hybrid network that integrates both.
Neural correlates of lyrical improvisation: An fMRI study of freestyle rap | Liu • Chow • Xu • Erkkinen • Swett • Eagle • Rizik-Baer • Braun
[T]he functional interconnections… suggest that spontaneous lyrical improvisation is associated with emergence of a network that integrates motivation, language, emotion and motor function… this network also incorporates regions that play a role in multimodal sensory processing and the representation of subjective experience, and that, as a whole, this entire network is more effectively coupled during spontaneous creative behavior – perhaps facilitating what has been described as a psychological ‘flow’ state (which describes a subject’s complete immersion in creative activity, typified by focused self-motivation, positive emotional valence, and loss of self-consciousness).
Meditation, as a practice of cultivating conscious control of our awareness, also shares many characteristics attributed to creativity and the experience of flow. As such, it should inform and be informed by neurological studies of awareness. So it is no surprise that we find familiar themes in the potential relationships between meditation and brain networks.
Mindfulness in Plain English: Mindfulness Versus Concentration | Bhante Gunaratan
Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point… Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.
There are two major categories of meditation practices: controlled focus / concentration and open monitoring / mindfulness. Although not mutually exclusive, meditation practices tend to be primarily identified as one or the other. However the common objective of both styles is often characterized as a state of awareness which integrates the two. It seems likely that the experience of flow is related to the type of awareness cultivated by this integration.