The Science of Peak Experience


You’re singing on stage at a local bar – you have your band (or backing music) behind you and a cluster of friends, family and unknown faces in the audience ahead of you. It’s a new song, one you have practised a couple of times, but not one that you feel that you have mastered; until now. You begin to feel the rhythm of the music, singing perfectly in tune and effortlessly reaching each note. Each moment seamlessly flows into the last and all your senses become more intense; you notice the echo of each sound, your rhythmic breathing and the smile of a friend in the audience. You’re completely immersed in the moment and flowing through the song. Before you know it, the audience is applauding, and you’re backstage; exhilarated, mystified and refreshed by the experience.

This kind of experience isn’t limited to musicians. This complete immersion in an experience could occur while you are dancing, playing a sport, talking with a friend, reading a good book or even writing an essay during an exam. These exceptional moments which we often refer to as “being in the zone” or “being in the moment” are what have been termed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “flow” experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi describes a flow experience as

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

The problem with these peak experiences is that they occur so rarely in our lives; what if we could have more of them? Csikszentmihalyi claims we can. His research suggests that there are similarities in the structures of flow-inducing activities and so we could organise activities in our life in ways which make them conducive to producing flow.

In the 1970’s, Csikszentmihalyi travelled around the world conducing questionnaires detailing the peak experiences of different types of people. He began with experts: chess players, dancers, surgeons etc. and then moved onto people from all walks of life; Italian farmers, Navaho sheep herders, elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members and thousands more. What he found was surprising; everyone that he spoke to, regardless of culture, class, gender, age or level of modernisation, felt and performed their best when experiencing the state he named “flow”. He chose the term “flow” because, during the interviews, “flow” was the word that was repeatedly used to describe the experience. When experiencing flow, every action and every decision led fluidly into the next.

In conducting his research, he noticed commonalities between the flow-inducing activities people participated in. He used these commonalities to work out a structure of flow activities, thus allowing us to arrange activities in our lives in a way which promotes flow experiences.

He claims that for a flow state to occur, the activity must be perceived as voluntary, enjoyable for its own sake, it must require skill which challenges us but without being overwhelming and the activity should include clear goals towards success.

In other words, what sometimes prevents us from experiencing flow is perceiving an activity as “work”, something which we must do or something which we are only doing as a means to an end. Also, taking on too much can cause us anxiety and taking too small a challenge creates boredom. Flow occurs when we play, when we are willing participants of the game and when we’re appropriately challenged to our level of ability.

In addition, an increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that flow is highly correlated with happiness, both subjective and psychological well-being. It has been found that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem, and greater health.

Incredibly beneficial to daily life and an exciting area of research, neuroscientists have also taken a keen interest in “flow”. In 2008, neuroscientist Charles Limb used fMRI to examine the brains of improvisational jazz musicians in flow. He found a curious surprise; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain best known for self-monitoring, was deactivated. Self-monitoring is the voice in the head; the useless thoughts, the self-doubt and our inner critic. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, we’re liberated. We feel free to act without hesitation, hence creativity becomes more free-flowing and we act spontaneously.

Research into flow is giving us more freedom to determine the quality of our lives. Through the research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we can reconsider how we perceive and how we organise activities in life. Life can become less of a drag and instead flow like music. And if that doesn’t work, we can always just go for a dorsolateral prefrontal cortex lobotomy instead!

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