The Father of Flow Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, noted in his early commentary that Flow does not necessarily equate to characteristically good actions. Meaning, it is thought that several of our quintessential “bad guys” were probably acting in a flow state. Steven Kotler, Flow expert, states: “Flow involves tinkering with primal biology: addictive neurochemistry, potent psychology, and hardwired evolutionary behaviors.”1 There is some danger involved in the pursuit of Flow. Therefore, some precautions need to be taken.
In a personality course offered online by Jordan B. Peterson, he mentions that Hitler had an obsessive desire to clean up and bring order to Germany. While his point was that this was due to disgust de-sensitivity, it also points to commonality with the flow state. Hitler started with appear to be good intentions. He cleaned up factories and towns. And while this “putting to order” of the world gave Hitler some personal reward, it would not be long before he needed more to be rewarded in the same way. Csikszentmihalyi points to the need to “put in order” as a potential effect of flow. The obsessive nature of this desire for order was obvious in Hitler’s personal habits. He took four showers per day.2 Once the cities and factories were cleaned up, he moved on to other junctures in society starting with the mentally ill. Euthanasia came from this initiative. He continued to order things in accordance with his values. His objectives continued to get more and more questionable and morally corrupt. But it followed Hitler’s desire for order.
While speculation on Hitler’s mental health is a subject of great controversy, his obsessiveness is related to the functioning of the dopaminergic pathways.3 The same pathway that is responsible for flow and addiction.
Could it be possible that this obsessiveness to clean and bring order was done as a function of the Flow state?
In a related example, those who become sensitized to dopamine (such as extreme athletes) may take on more and more risk to achieve a greater flow stated causing danger to themselves and others. In 2015, Dean Potter and Grahm Hunt died in a terrible wingsuit accident while base jumping off of Yosemite’s Taft Point.4 At some point, it becomes too much. Kotler also says, “Don’t trust the dopamine.”
When dopamine takes us too far, we are in danger.
Flow, Dopamine, and Addiction
While the exact neuroscience of Flow is not fully understood, what we do know is that one of its key drivers is Dopamine.5 Dopamergenic pathways are responsible for intrinsic motivation and the relentless pursuit of a task often associated with the idea of Flow. Csikszentmihalyi notes that when a Flow activity becomes a necessity and not a choice, it has become addictive. 6 Essentially, you can become addicted to anything that activates this Dopamergenic pathway. Video games, gambling, pornography, cocaine, and many other activities and substances function to activate these pathways and also overlap the Flow state.7
In her new book, Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke discusses how our culture has arrived at a place where we are addicted to dopamine. From social media scrolling to romance novels to alcoholism and opioids, we are addicted to what provides us with dopamine dumps. This can result in the burnout and disinterest we may feel at times.
In the book, Lembke discusses that sex increases dopamine in the system by 100%, Nicotine by 150%. Cocaine increases dopamine by 1000%. This is why cocaine is often said to be one of the most addictive substances. We are programmed to seek more of what releases dopamine.8 This is how addiction functions at a neurochemical level. Because we now live in a society of abundance, these addictive substances and activities are available and abundant.
In a 2010 study, gamblers who won did not show a significant change in dopamine in the brain. However, those who lost saw a significant increase in dopamine release.8 This points to a phenomenon called loss chasing.9 This is a clear analogy for addictive behavior. The behavior, though destructive, continues to be reinforced by dopamine. The initial rush will never be felt the same again, yet we behave in a way in which we anticipate it may. There is a clear association between dopamine release and the unpredictability of outcome as much as there is in the anticipation of the reward. In other words, the behavior continues even though the desired outcome is not reached.
Risk is a flow trigger, meaning that undertaking risk often triggers a flow state. This suggests that gambling, a destructive addiction, can also lead to a flow state.
And what’s even scarier, in studies of mice given cocaine, the injections made them run. But, over time with the same dose of cocaine, the mice ran more and more. Their sensitization increased over time. They were more impacted by the cocaine. After withdrawing the cocaine for over a year (think of how long that is in mice time), during which time the mice stopped running, cocaine was reintroduced. The extreme sensitization and associated changes in the brain caused the same behavior, increased running even a year after the last dose was administered. This shows that the brain was forever altered due to the drug, as the brain did not revert in its absence.
This suggests that addictions permanently rewire our brains. Once we indulge, even after a long pause, our brain allows the addiction to pick up where it left off.
The Dark Side of Flowing
The dangers in experiencing a Flow state lies in its connections to the dopaminergic pathway. This is the pathway responsible for reward and addiction. Not only addiction, but other antisocial behavior may come into play. A study done in 2008 revealed that war combat is relatable to a flow state, even the killing of others.10
The above video is particularly hard to watch considering this article has already considered Potter’s death shortly after this recording. However, it is anecdotal evidence of the addictive power of the flow experience.
A 2020 study suggests that those who suffer from greater levels of narcissism (selfishness, entitlement, need for admiration) are at greater risk for dependence on Facebook use. This may be due in part to what is called Facebook Flow.12 Or flow experienced on Facebook. The Narcissistic need for self-promotion draws them to platforms such as Facebook in order to do so. Those suffering from narcissism are painting a false picture of themselves in order to gain social acceptance and in some cases power. Higher levels of narcissism seem to be related to more involvement in politics.13 Dopamine is responsible for our “seeking system”, which drives us to take action to achieve our desires.14
Of course, more research needs to be done, but it’s fair to say that there is evidence that narcissistic people are more likely to become addicted to seeking admiration and the vehicles that may help them achieve this. An activated seeking system, a drive for admiration, and a value for order may have been the recipe that drove Hitler to massacre millions of people and provoke a war that threatened the stability of the world.
While this is an oversimplification, it is possible to experience flow while speaking.15 The feel of your voice and the arousal of ideas in those you’re communicating with gives you the immediate feedback needed to facilitate a flow experience. This may be the recipe for a cult leader, political or religious leader, or a political pundit.
This is all speculation, but it seems to be related to the concept of Flow. In any case, where there is dopamine, there is often Flow. But where there is dopamine (and conversely Flow) there is the possibility of addiction. What values we seek to express when using the power of Flow should be closely examined.
So what do we do?
We live in a world in which outside forces have learned to manipulate our own neural chemistry. Our cellphones, computers, our doctors, our inboxes, and our jobs have all played a role in dousing our brains with dopamine. We are desensitized to that which should drive us. It is all too easy for our systems to become overwhelmed.
David Goggins famously tells the story of how he ran 101 miles and refused to let his wife take him to the hospital though he had signs of broken legs and kidney failure. Only two weeks later, though he could hardly walk, he ran the Las Vegas marathon in the Boston Marathon qualifying time of three hours and eight minutes.11 He refers to this as the most important moment of his life. He reports being spent at mile seventy, but he ran thirty-one more miles. By facing the pain, his mindset was completely changed. In his book, Can’t Hurt Me, Goggins reports that on the “other side of pain, there is beauty and meaning.”
What can we learn by facing our pain?
In Dopamine Nation, Lembke shares the story of one of her patients who had success and from the outside, a wonderful life. He was rich, successful, and had the life that many only dreamed of. But, he was addicted to cocaine – a habit that threatened to undo everything. He kicked the habit but suffered from dopamine detox. He felt flat, uninspired, and didn’t know what to do next. Then, he stumbled upon ice baths. He found the experience excruciatingly painful at first. But afterward, he felt a rush similar to the cocaine. He would eventually report increased well-being and alleviation of the detox-related symptoms he was feeling. It became a practice he takes part in twice per day.
What is going on here?
Wim Hof, the “Ice Man”, who famously sat in an ice bath in Times Square in the middle of a cold New York winter, is an advocate for ice baths. He has – in part- made ice bathing popular. In a study, ten men submerged themselves in 57-degree water for one hour. Afterward, their blood plasma readings reported a 250% increase in dopamine and a 530% increase in norepinephrine. Both remained elevated for an hour afterward. Extreme cold in animals has been shown to promote neuronal growth.16 Ice baths have an obvious effect on the brains of humans and dogs.
What is being witnessed here, is the balance between pain and pleasure. Embracing and chasing the pain, even inflicting it on oneself in these ways seems to be a gateway to naturally releasing the neurochemicals of pleasure. The concept of Hormesis comes into play. This idea refers to applying “small to moderate noxious stimuli” that can actually help create and regulate our neurochemicals.17 The body strives to put us into homeostasis – our baseline, our normal state. By pushing on the pain threshold, we may increase our pleasure neurochemicals and in an attempt to return to homeostasis. It is a balancing act that is different for everyone.
Seek out the physical and mental challenges in your life. This helps bring the pain/pleasure balance back to baseline. We cannot have pain without pleasure. As Lembke says, we are essentially “titillating ourselves to death.”
Flow is generally a positive experience. The dangers occur when it takes too much of a flow trigger to achieve the desired depth of state. Also, our values and what we are creating or producing as a result of the state should be considered. Flow is a powerful tool propelling humanity towards its destination. Like all things, balance and moderation are required for the tool to function at its greatest capacity and goodness of use.
- Lembke, Ann. (2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. Penguin.