Over the past decade, scientists have made enormous progress on flow. Advancements in brain imaging technologies have allowed us to apply serious metrics where once was only subjective experience. We have learned plenty, including the fact that Csikszentmihalyi was dead-on in his word choice: “flow” is the exact right term for the experience.
The state emerges from a radical alteration in normal brain function. In flow, as attention heightens, the slower and energy-expensive extrinsic system (conscious processing) is swapped out for the far faster and more efficient processing of the subconscious, intrinsic system. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” says American University in Beirut neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, who helped discover this phenomena. “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
The technical term for this exchange is “transient hypofrontality,” with “hypo” (meaning slow) being the opposite of “hyper” (i.e., fast) and “frontal” referring to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that houses our higher cognitive functions. This is one of the main reasons flow feels flowy—because any brain structure that would hamper rapid-fire decision-making is literally shut off.