George Mumford, acclaimed sports psychologist, trained many of the NBA’s finest athletes. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal all credit Mumford’s teachings as integral to their success. As a coach he blended together the world of psychology, neuroscience, and athletics, often remindining his athletes that they’ve “Trained [their] nervous system… conscious thinking needs to be quiet… Nothing exists but this moment and what [they’re] doing” (Effron, 2016).
Mumford’s words allude to the psychological concept of flow. While we broke flow psychology down in our previous article, I’d like to use this space to examine flow from a neurological perspective. The first neurocognitive model of flow was outlined by Arne Dietrich. He hypothesized that the flow state was due to a decrease in explicit (voluntary) processing by prefrontal areas of the brain, in favor of more implicit (automatic) processing networks (Dietrich, 2004; Gold & Ciociari, 2020). fMRI studies of brain activity during flow showed less activation of frontal areas involved in self-reflective thinking. Moreover, current researchers suggest that this state of focus is likely mediated by precisely released pulses of norepinephrine from the Locus Coureleus to create optimum levels of arousal (Linden, Topps, & Bakker, 2021).
By working to understand the neurological underpinnings behind flow states, we stand to deepen our understanding of the nuanced functioning of the brain. In this way we can train ourselves to access these altered states of consciousness at will.