What is flow experience?

ptak w locie
ptak w locie

Published: 20-06-2015

Last modified: 28-03-2020

Flow experience is a state of deep concentration, during which we forget about everything, except what we are doing right now. A person during flow experience feels happiness and peace. Flow describes e.g. composers: “You are in a state of such ecstasy that you almost don’t exist. It has happened to me many times. My hands do not seem to belong to me; I have nothing to do with what’s going on. I am just sitting, looking at it all with admiration and delight. It just flows out of me.” climbers, chess players, surgeons, skydivers… “Freefall is a …free feeling. It’s one time in my life when I think of nothing else. I mean, there’s nothing on my mind. There’s nothing I’m thinking about other than what I’m experiencing. Everything else is totally out of my mind and I am free. There is nothing to hold me down, to hold me back. There’s just nothing there…”.2

The concept introduced in the 70s psychologist at the University of Chicago – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He identified nine factors as accompanying an experience of flow:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).
  2. Concentration (a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness (the merging of action and awareness).
  4. Distorted sense of time (time goes faster or slower).
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.

When people achieve flow, their cerebral cortex works most effectively – its operation consumes the least amount of psychic energy. Its activity when measured by EEG techniques is reduced. Attention is focused, but not strenuous. The opposite happens when we try to work during fatigue, nervousness or boredom. In this case the cerebral cortex does not work effectively, because areas that are not needed to perform a given task are also stimulated. Flow experience is also associated with increased secretion, among others, dopamine, which maintains the activity of the prefrontal cortex (corresponding to focus, among others), and affects the feeling of happiness and satisfaction.


  1. Daniel Goleman “Emotional Intelligence”
  2. Transcendent benefits of high-risk sports
  3. Flow (psychology) at Wikipedia
  4. Neuro-psychological Measures of Flow

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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  • a j marr says:

    Why the Flow Model is illogical: A contrarian perspective on Flow from the perspective of affective neuroscience

    On the surface, the graphical representation of the flow channel is simple to understand. When you arrange a demand/skill match, flow happens. For any task, the problem is that although demand moves up or down dependent upon the exigencies of the moment, skill should be relatively stable during or within the performance, and only change, and for the most part gradually between performances. Thus, one may accomplish a task that from moment to moment varies in demand, but the skills brought to that task are the same regardless of demand. What this means is that for any one-performance set, skill is not a variable, but a constant. That is, one cannot adjust skill against demand during performance because skill can only change negligibly during performance, or in other words does not move. Thus, for performance that requires any skill set, the only variable that can be manipulated is demand. For moment to moment behavior the adjustable variable that elicits flow is demand and demand alone. But that leaves us with figuring out what demand exactly is.
    A demand may be defined as simple response-outcome contingency. Thus, if you do X, Y will occur or not occur. It is thus inferred that demand entails a fully predictable means-end relationship or expectancy. But the inference that the act-outcome expectancy is always fully predictable is not true. Although a response-outcome is fully predictable when skill overmatches demand, as demand rises to match and surpass skill, uncertainty in the prediction of a performance outcome also rises. At first, the uncertainty is positive, and reaches its highest level when a skill matches the level of demand. This represents a ‘touch and go’ experience wherein every move most likely will result in a positive outcome in a calm or non-stressed state. It is here that many individuals report euphoric flow like states. Passing that, the moment-to-moment uncertainty of a bad outcome increases, along with a corresponding rise in tension and anxiety.
    Momentary positive uncertainty as a logical function of the moment to moment variance occurring when demand matches skill does not translate into a predictor for flow, and is ignored in Csikszentmihalyi’s model because uncertainty by implication does not elicit affect. Rather, affect is imputed to metaphorical concepts of immersion, involvement, and focused attention that are not grounded to any specific neurological processes. However, the fact that act-outcome discrepancy in relaxed states alone has been correlated with specific neuro-chemical changes in the brain that map to euphoric, involved, timeless , or immersive states, namely the co-activation of dopamine and opioid systems due to continuous positive act/outcome discrepancy and relaxation, narrows the cause of flow to abstract elements of perception rather than metaphorical aspects of performance. These abstract perceptual elements denote information and can easily be defined and be reliably mapped to behavior.
    A final perceptual aspect of demand that correlates with the elicitation of dopamine is the importance of the result or goal of behavior. Specifically, dopaminergic systems are activated by the in tandem perception of discrepancy and the predicted utility or value of result of a response contingency. The flow model maps behavior to demand and skill, but not only is skill fixed, so is the importance of the goal state that predicates demand. However, the relative importance of the goal state correlates with the intensity of affect. For example, representing a task that matches his skills, a rock climber calmly ascending a difficult cliff would be euphoric if the moment to moment result was high, namely avoiding a fatal fall, but would be far less so if he was attached to a tether, and would suffer only an injury to his pride is he were to slip. Finally, the flow experience correlates also with a state of relaxation and the concomitant activation of opioid systems along with a dopamine induced arousal state that together impart a feeling of euphoria, which would also be predicted as choices in flow are singular and clear and therefore avoid perseverative cognition. It is the sense of relaxation induced pleasure and a feeling of attentive arousal that constitutes the flow experience.

    This interpretation is based on the work of the distinguished neuroscientist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who was kind to vet the work for accuracy and endorse the finished manuscript.
    Berridge’s Site

    I offer a more detailed theoretical explanation in pp. 47-52, and pp 82-86 of my open source book on the neuroscience of resting states, ‘The Book of Rest’, linked below.

    The Psychology of Rest

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