All of us want to feel more alive and invigorated and everyone feels great when they’re completely focused on what’s happening around them and they’re entirely ‘in the moment’. This kind of feeling comes about rarely but when it does it can not only lead to euphoric sensations but also help to increase our performance, productivity, creativity and more. This is what is known as a ‘flow state’ in some circles and is something that is sort after by many a psychologist, athlete and entrepreneur. Some people live their entire lives in pursuit of ‘flow’ and will even take serious risks in order to try and accomplish this.
But it might be that achieving this sense of alertness and flow is easier than anyone thought. It may simply come down to trying to experience new things and surrounding ourselves with novel and ‘rich’ environments.
Why Novelty is So Important
When you do something new or novel, whether that means putting yourself in a new environment or it means trying to learn a new subject, your brain sits up and takes notice. That’s because it has something new to learn and new information to categorize so it needs energy and focus to do those things. Perhaps it now needs to make a new ‘mental map’ of its surroundings, or maybe it just needs to learn the new things you’re showing it.
At the same time, novelty creates a sense of the unknown and this in turn creates the potential for danger. If you’re in an unknown part of the woods that you’ve never been to before, then you cannot 100% guarantee that a lion isn’t going to jump out on you some time soon. Again the brain then needs to be alert and vigilant. This results in the release of hormones like norepinephrine and dopamine which are associated with attention and learning. Not quite to ‘fight or flight’ extents, but just enough to make you keenly aware of your surroundings and more ‘in the zone’.
Either way, sitting in the same place all day provides none of these same things. When you see nothing new there is nothing new to learn and there is a far lower chance of danger. Thus your brain is able to disengage with the surroundings and go into more of an ‘energy saving mode’, most likely causing you to access your ‘default mode network’ which is most responsible for imagination and daydreaming.
Of course that default mode network is useful for some things – like creativity – and can actually help you to come up with new and novel ideas. At the same time though, it is not particularly useful if you want to engage with your surroundings, heighten your reflexes and reactions and generally improve your ability to act quickly and effectively in the moment.
Novelty and Danger for Flow and Learning
Some of this effect is likely to be generated within a part of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain is important for emotions and also seemingly attention and memory. Current research appears to suggest that this part of the brain is the area most important for discerning salience. In other words, this part of the brain is the area that tells us that something is important and that we should learn in and it appears to be modulated at least in part by the appearance of ‘novelty’ (1). Furthermore, novelty has been shown in several studies to play a very important role in learning (2).
If we focus on something enough then eventually this can cause the other areas of our brain that we aren’t using to shut down. This puts us in a state called ‘hypofrontality’ where any parts of the brain that aren’t useful for the task in hand go quiet. This particularly gets rid of the ‘inner critic’ and allows for immediate and effective response to the situation we’re in. This is the state that some people refer to as flow.
These flow states can also be brought about by situations that the body thinks of as danger. This is why extreme sports athletes who enjoy snowboarding, rock climbing and other activities with an obvious and very present sense of danger and risk will often report being in ‘flow’ more often. When we’re hurtling down the side of a mountain our brain tends to think these situations are very important and thus we produce more of those chemicals that make us focused and alert. Some people also think, that by practicing being in flow states more often they can actually become better at harnessing them whenever they need them. Thus the skills that extreme sports enthusiasts learn from hurtling down the sides of mountains may in fact be transferrable to other areas of their lives and help them to perform better at work etc.
How to Get More Novelty and Excitement in Your Life
To feel alive and to be firing on all cylinders then, we need rich and novel environments and we need to be constantly exploring and trying new things. Unfortunately, very few of us actually live our lives this way at all and instead spend most of our time sitting in a dark room typing on a computer. We then go home and relax while watching X-Factor. When you look at it like that, it’s not hard to see why many people don’t feel fulfilled and why many of us have a nagging sense of lethargy and the feeling that we should be doing more with our lives. And of course, a complete lack of novelty and excitement means that we aren’t testing ourselves, we aren’t learning, we aren’t growing… and our performance and our health thus suffers as a result. Not that there’s anything wrong with X-Factor of course…
Unfortunately, most of us just don’t have the option to spend our whole lives free climbing or skiing down slopes. And even if we could, this would be a pretty quick way to get injured. Instead then, we need to look for ways to get that novelty, that excitement and that danger in our regular lives. Fortunately there are a number of ways that you can still trigger the same effects and live a more exciting life full of novelty as far as your brain is concerned.
Hacking Your Brain With Novelty and Excitement
‘The Flow Genome Project’ is an organization that attempts to teach the experience of being in flow and let others spend more of their life in this state eventually as a result. One of the ways they aim to do this, is by simulating dangerous experiences in order to ‘hack’ the brain and make it wake up and pay attention. They use gravity swings for instance which place the users in large swings and make them feel almost as though they are going to fall and as though they’re spinning around out of their control. The swings are in fact completely safe, but the body doesn’t know this and simply experiences all of the sensations that are associated with swinging around and upside down. The brain then reads these signals as danger and thus assumes that you are at risk. While you might be harnessed in and suspended over a crash mat, the brain simply focusses on the kinesthetic sense of being upside down and spinning around at high speeds and so the same flow response can occur.
What this shows us is that the flow state can be ‘hacked’ and the brain can be fooled into thinking that it is in danger thus triggering the same response. You could take advantage of this at home then for instance by using something like hand balancing. You can practice hand balancing from the comfort of your home with no equipment necessary, but the sense of being upside down can still stimulate a real fear response.
Perhaps easier is simply to go for a run and to try visiting somewhere new each time. Instead of taking the same route that you always take, go for a jog and try to find new things in your area. You’re bound to discover new routes and new sights every time you go and this will not only make your runs more interesting, but it will also stimulate the brain by showing it new and unusual things that cause it to switch on and come alive.
Another great strategy is to take more social risks. In many ways, the brain can’t differentiate between social risks and the kinds of risks you experience hurtling down a mountain. Thus, as long as you are in a situation that causes you to get butterflies and gets your heart racing, you will be stimulating yourself and triggering the hormone releases associated with heightened awareness, increased learning and laser focus.
Even just making a few smaller changes can have the effect of making you feel more focused and challenges. For instance, learning something new or even watching different things on TV can help to mix things up and get you to actually pay attention to your surroundings. Similarly, something as small as setting your wallpaper on your computer to show a different image every day can increase the new stimulus you experience daily and again cause the relevant parts of your brain to light up and come to life.
Even if you are forced to repeat the same task day after day for your job, then you can still enjoy a lot of the same benefits by simply approaching it in a different way, setting yourself challenges or just reminding yourself why it’s important and why it’s fascinating. Likewise, just decorating your home or office with more color and more stimulating items might make a difference even if they remain the same. More to look at is more to look at.
Obviously changing the wallpaper on your computer isn’t going to put you in a state of ‘flow’ but it might just cause your brain to wake up and take notice of what’s going on and it might lead to some positive neurochemical changes in the brain. The question is whether flow is a ‘binary’ state, or whether it’s possible for there to be degrees of ‘flow’. Maybe you’ll be in a bit more flow if your environment is colorful and novel.
To really come alive your brain needs to be constantly stimulated by novel things and challenged and you need to be excited by what you’re doing. Bring a bit more of that into your life and you’ll experience huge benefits in your mental health and your performance.