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What Happens to the Prefrontal Cortex in the Flow State?

The flow state is an enigmatic condition in which mental and physical performance becomes suddenly effortless and the perception of time itself can be greatly altered. This mysterious occurrence has been studied by history’s greatest philosophers. Not until recently has the modern medical community investigated the occurrence and what they found is nothing short of amazing.

Flow State History

The concept of a state of mind that is virtually impervious to fatigue and unaffected by the passage of time has been mentioned in some of the most important scientific treatise produced by history’s greatest minds.

According to Aristotle, the state of flow was part of Eudaimonia, which is roughly translated to being in possession of a good spirit and the result of practical wisdom. In Zen philosophy, Mushin is the state “no mind” where work and action are accomplished without the “interference” of a conscious thought process. This state is characterized by a mind emptied of thoughts and is fully absorbed in the moment. 1

Many times the mind can be so caught up in a state of flow that all else is neglected, even regular sleep, meals, and washing. This was the case with Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, and many other great minds that changed the world .

young woman in the flow state working Inception of the Flow State

You have undoubtedly experienced this phenomenon in one way or another. Anytime you have become so wrapped up in an enjoyable and engaging task that all other needs or affairs completely slip your mind, you have entered flow.

The flow state is when humans work their best and can count on inspiration, creativity, and endurance that seems to come from far beyond regular capacity. By learning what it means to reach this state and some of the dynamics of flow, it is quite possible to cultivate this elusive state for improved efficiency and productivity.

Definition of Flow

Flow will not happen by chance. Initiating this sequence requires a link between the mental and physical states. Here are some of the components of a state of flow set out by Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the renowned psychologist who studied the state of flow extensively in the 1970s. 2

    • The task at hand must have direction and structure in the form of a process that leads to a final goal.

    • The task must provide immediate feedback that can allow the doer to observe the results and make rapid adjustments to their process which improves the final goal.

    • The task must be well within the capacity of the doer, but not so easy that the task lacks a challenging aspect.

The sports scene is where many people experience their most frequent states of flow. Sports typically have a goal and present plenty of physical challenges along with immediate feedback on how outcomes can be improved. This can result in a performance that is second nature and can easily be completed without extra distractions in the mind.

One of the amazing things empirical science has noticed about the state of flow is that it is achieved by circumventing a large part of the brain devoted to identity, self-criticism, and self-control. This portion of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex, or PFC for short.

Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is one of the most highly-evolved portions of the human brain and is directly involved in planned responses. As the executive of the human brain, the PFC will consider past events and experiences along with current considerations when producing an appropriate response. Conditions that adversely affect this part of the brain can leave a person with personality issues and trouble with the decision making process. 3

The PFC has evolved greatly and now allows humans to reach an enhanced intelligence and capacity to solve complex problems by accessing personal and learned experiences. Humans can adapt to many new situations and environmental challenges by relying on applied memories and experiences.

While many of the threats and risks of our environment have been ameliorated with science and innovation, the primary functions of the PFC have not changed much. The PFC acts as the voice of reason within the mind. It fights the impulsive notions and maintains that rational actions are the safest course to success. Since the PFC is still in development until early adulthood, younger adults and children are often more inclined to impulsive behavior than older, mature individuals.

This is especially true for a region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) which is one of the latest evolutions in our magnificent bodies. This region of the brain undergoes an especially long maturation process which continues into adulthood. Most of the executive action that dampens impulsiveness and whispers self-judgement takes place in the DLPFC. 4

But oddly enough, the actions of the PFC can be an obstacle to the clarity , effortlessness and sheer pleasure derived from working in the state of flow. If the PFC plays such an important role in higher cognitive functions, why is it that this important section of the brain becomes largely inactive when in the state of flow?

couple jogging in the park The Physiology of Flow

The state of flow begins with a condition called transient hypofrontality which is the temporary deactivation of the PFC. Our learned responses, self-criticism, and sense of identity are all tied to the PFC. When the activities of the DLPFC go quiet, the mind is free to act in new ways, reach new conclusions, and function beyond the disparaging voice of our inner critic.

As a result, the mind adopts a novel, childlike perspective producing associations and conclusions that are daring, innovative, and courageous. Flow allows the mind to view its challenges in a whole new light that illuminates the endless possibilities and seeks new methods of accomplishing goals.

Furthermore, the state of flow is also connected to a sudden infusion of neurochemicals. These enhance pleasurable activity, improve physical and mental performance, and sharpen creativity. Some of the most important neurotransmitters released during a state of flow include: 5

    • Anandamide

    • Dopamine

    • Endorphins

    • Norepinephrine

    • Serotonin

Under this positive influence, the brain is capable of improved focus, concentration, and can acquire information quickly. Anandamide works to improve lateral thinking, essentially increasing the database of information available to the mind when operating in the flow state.


The flow state is a highly focused, efficient, and optimized mental state of mind. This article provided a general review of the role the prefrontal cortex plays in reaching the flow state so that a higher mental capacity can be reached.

Photo credits: AlissaKumarova/,gpointstudio/, GaudiLab/

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