What is Flow?

Stephen Pirrie
3 min readAug 3, 2015

Flow is a term that has been gaining in popularity over recent years but what is the science behind it?

Whilst people tend to just know what you mean when you say you were/are in “flow” and whilst I (and hopefully you) have experienced flow many times, I’ve always wondered what it really is.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 2004 talk, Flow, the secret to happiness reveals a great deal…

During Csikszentmihalyi’s research he interviewed a number of people from different professions. Multiple interviewees talked of being outside of the experience and one composer spoke of the feeling he gets when he is creating music, music that clearly previously didn’t exist:

…once he gets to that point of beginning to create a new reality — that is, a moment of ecstasy — he enters that different reality. Now he says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist.

Others mentioned similar experiences…

…which is apt because Csikszentmihalyi explains

“ecstasy” in Greek meant simply to stand [stasis] to the side [ek] of something… And then it became essentially an analogy for a mental state where you feel that you are not doing your ordinary everyday routines. So ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality.

This is why — the science bit:

Our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. (That’s why you can’t hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you.)

This was the killer statement for me. It applied a science to “flow”. We have a threshold to what information our brains can register. Other sources state that the human threshold for absorbing sensory experiences is <60 bit/s, but for the purposes of understanding flow, the empirical number is irrelevant because flow is simply about going beyond your threshold.

when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man [the composer] is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness…

This absolutely helped me. In essence…

Any experience that delivers more information than your threshold to process it, will put you in flow.

If I chart that out, a Friday may look like this:

A typical Friday that might put me in flow. All activity percentages are, of course, approximated.

What you notice from this chart is that the activities that deliver high sensorial input are the same ones that we enjoy. This isn’t a coincidence. We enjoy input and when we no longer have capacity to think consciously about that input, we are in flow.

Clearly your flow may come from anything else — whatever floats your boat — from dancing, surfing, programming, woodwork, meditating, gaming, sex, reading, driving or even clearly artificial means to ecstasy. What is clear though, is that the activities that give you the most sensorial input — new realities — are the ones that give you the best chance to be in flow.

I am no authority on this at all. I’m not a psychologist, therapist, or medical professional. This is simply an investigation of my own and I’d welcome responses and comments with your opinion on whether this is your understanding of flow. (Or whether this is technically even correct.)

Watch Csikszentmihalyi’s full talk ⬇️

Stephen Pirrie

Brand strategy lead working with the c-suite to grow brands with award-winning strategy and creative execution.