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Carnal Clues: The Physiology Of Flow

An insider's guide to getting in the zone.

We're all capable of getting in the zone: Writing, running, playing music, even video gaming can sometimes bring on the blissful state of total mental absorption.

The key to letting self-consciousness go and achieving flow is pairing your skill level with just enough difficulty. Here's what happens in our bodies when complete concentration grips our minds.


During intense concentration, blood flow is diverted to brain regions that process relevant, rather than random, sounds, says Jyoti Mishra, an attention researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. That's why we can tune out ticking clocks, passing cars, and even hearing our own name. Call it aural fixation.


When you're gunning toward a goal and engrossed in obtaining a reward, primal needs like hunger don't easily enter awareness, explains Michael Esterman, cofounder of Boston University's Attention and Learning Lab.


Plunging into a pursuit of your choice dials down pain perception so that aches and exhaustion "have no chance to register in consciousness," explains the father of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


Zeroing in on a task, explains Aachen University neuroscientist Martin Klasen, recruits your intraparietal sulcus, a brain region that helps center your sights on input relevant to the present challenge. The upshot: You can focus on tracking down a virtual enemy in Black Ops instead of looking at the lights flashing on your Xbox.


Flow's signature effortlessness involves a calm kind of concentration that deepens your breathing, says Fredrik Ullen, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute. Your lungs let in more oxygen and expel more cellular waste, liberating you from lethargy.