Fight, flight, freeze or flow – how our brains keep us from focusing

Brains are hard-wired for distraction
Brains are hard-wired for distraction

I’ve always been a night owl. Hands down, my favorite part of the day is the quiet hours between 10pm and 2am. It’s not that I don’t enjoy work or love spending time with my family, I do. But when the world quiets down, dishes are washed, lunches are packed and the family is down for the night, something changes for me.

I get more focused during these quiet times. I have better ideas. I create more. Produce more. And I’m generally happier with my late-night production than I am with work squeezed in between the meetings, conversations and errands that compete for my time during the day.

What’s different about these work sessions? Are they the product of conditioning and habit? Is increased productivity simply the result of a lower ambient noise level? Is my couch actually a magical aide to creativity?

As cool as a magic couch sounds, it’s more likely that my high-productivity evening hours are the product of “flow.”

In the zone

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, first named the concept of “Flow“, which refers to a “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Sounds great. Sign me up. I’d like to work like that all the time. So how do we get into a flow state?

Part of the answer may lie in understanding our primitive fight, flight or freeze instincts. When we’re in a flow state, our focus narrows. Attention to the task at hand crowds out awareness of our surroundings, self-awareness and the passage of time. To better understand flow and how to enter a flow state, it’s worth looking at the parts of the brain that prevent focus by promoting fear and awareness.

The amygdala

Flow states are difficult to describe. I think this is in part because the centers of the brain responsible for self-awareness are turned off during flow. We just aren’t paying attention when it’s happening.

Relatedly, the amygdala is designed to protect us from centuries of oh-god-it-has-claws types of danger. We are hardwired to look for threats before dedicating attention to anything else.

Most of us don’t need to worry about sudden attack by a predator. Still, we are exposed to plenty of fear-generating inputs every day. Whether by accident or design, these experiences compete for our attention. For creative types with an interest in improving personal performance, our job becomes figuring out how to filter these inputs.

The amygdala hijacks our focus

There may not be some toothy beast waiting to leap out and gobble us up, but the amygdala is still hard at work. Marketers, advertisers and the news media know this. In his book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter Diamandis makes the observation:

“The old newspaper saw ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”

Our brain’s natural inclination to constantly scan for threats is a convenient tool for capturing our attention, but it sure can throw a wrench in things when we’re trying to do something that requires long, contemplative thought.

Can flow compete against instinct?

The implication that fight, flight or freeze instincts have on creativity, flow and a quantified life are far reaching. I’m glad these ideas are getting some attention, and I look forward to benefiting from the results of the research.

But I also think it helps me to understand why my evening work sessions are so precious to me. I get to control the inputs during those quiet hours when the house is asleep.

Sure, I could stream a news program or keep Twitter open in a browser window. Sometimes I do, and I generally don’t have anything new or exciting to show from those evenings.

But sometimes I don’t.

Those are the nights when the sounds of the world fall away. Time stretches in interesting ways and I could care less about the pace of its passage. I forget about my ambitions and fears. All that matters is my ideas and my project.

During the day, I use RescueTime’s “Get Focused…” feature to blank some of those competing distractions. That helps, as does being aware of how messaging is packaged to demand my instinctual attention. But still, achieving flow is a challenge.

Let me know in the comments if you have a time or place that powers up your creativity. If you have tips on how to kick start laser-focused work sessions, I’d love to hear them!

And finally, here’s a really interesting TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describing flow.

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