Finding the elusive ‘flow state’

Some cannabis consumers say they can achieve a sense of consciousness that propels creativity and performance

If you’ve ever been so immersed in a task that hours have slipped by unnoticed, you’ve experienced flow. Some people reach the “flow state” when focusing intently on making art or music, or while engaged in vigorous sports, competition or performance. Others may access it at a slower pace while on the yoga mat or meandering on a hiking trail. People call “flow” by different names: in the zone, runner’s high, the forever box.

But whatever you call it—and however you get there—being in flow means you're performing at or close to physical and mental peak, creativity is off the charts, time passes differently and decision-making is optimal. And some consumers say that cannabis is key to getting there.

Sometimes flow arises spontaneously, and other times people go far out of their way to cultivate it. It's described as a spectrum: “microflow” is easier to achieve but less engrossing, while “macroflow” can be transcendent and life-changing. It's also trainable—meaning that you can get into flow more often, and stay there longer, by learning the behaviors and triggers that go along with it.

While flow may sound subjective—or even New Age-y—it is in fact a technical term. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, began studying the flow state in the 1970s. Since then, neuroimaging has made it easier to identify by showing the release of five neurochemicals: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins and anandamide. In flow, brain waves hover between the alpha and theta frequencies. Certain parts of the brain activate in flow, and others—like the self-conscious and judgment-oriented prefrontal cortex—quiet down.

A 10-year study by McKinsey & Company found that executives operating in flow are 500% more productive, while the Department of Defense has found that soldiers learn 230% faster when in flow.

What's more, research indicates that people who spend more time in flow score higher on life satisfaction questionnaires, and there's no mystery as to why: It's fun to lose yourself in a task, particularly one you find both challenging and enjoyable. Most people find it fulfilling to perform at peak without worrying about the past or future—operating from a place sometimes called the “deep now.”

So what turns on flow? Intense focus, clear goals and a balance between skills and challenge are three among many of the conditions commonly identified to help ease the brain into the right mode. Cannabis can also help.

According to journalist and researcher Steven Kotler, author of numerous books including The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance and self-described “flow junky,” consuming cannabis can prime the brain and body to access flow. He says he discovered this about 20 years ago. As a journalist, he followed elite skiers about to take tremendous physical risks. In a September 2019 talk called “Cannabis, Flow and Peak Performance” in Redwood Valley, Kotler related how—instead of pacing nervously or giving themselves pep talks before their runs—the elite skiers were huddled around a pipe, toking up on the windy slopes. Kotler had no context to understand why they would do this, and it sent him on a decades-long journey to answer the question of how people access flow states and whether cannabis might help.

The THC route to flow

Sarah Ratliff, a writer living on a busy farm with goats, ducks and chickens in Puerto Rico, told SN&R about the routine that serves her best when she requires uninterrupted focus for work. In the early mornings, she walks her dogs and drinks Earl Grey or green tea with cannabis honey.

After that, she said, “I can tune out the animals and focus. Once I'm in the zone, I can write for hours—only stopping for a bio break or food. I've found nothing to put me in the zone better than cannabis.”

And there are good reasons for this. According to Kotler, cannabis affects the mind and body in essential ways that bring users closer to flow. First of all, the prefrontal cortex quiets down both in flow states and under the influence of cannabis. Secondly, cannabis use pushes the brain toward alpha waves, which—along with theta—are present in flow. Third, a part of the brain called the striatum is more active in people experiencing flow as well as in—you guessed it—people consuming cannabis.

Another way that cannabis use can prime the brain for flow has to do with neurochemicals. Dopamine, associated with both pleasurable feelings and the ability to creatively connect ideas, is released both in flow states and under the influence of cannabis. And anandamide helps people feel open to new experiences and further enhances cognitive and creative connections. Kotler says that it's those perky and uplifting sativa-like strains that help bring the brain closer to the flow state.

Because of the vast and as-yet untapped potential to be found in consciously using cannabis for cultivating flow states, Kotler remarks “there's a revolution in human performance tucked inside the cannabis industry.”

CBD and flow

Chris Denico0la, founder and CEO of Santeer, a CBD company, told SN&R that part of the motivation behind the company is to provide natural products to people who might otherwise use beta blockers or painkillers to enhance their performance. A former semi-pro golfer, Denicola says that when he's in flow out on the course, “it feels like everything works. I don't have to think about the swing or the shot. There is the shot and I just execute it.”

His company crafts CBD tablets that he says absorb into the body much more thoroughly than oils and tinctures. One product, Focus, includes a blend of five terpenes, including terpinolene, beta caryophyllene and CBD meant to help users perform their best—whether physically or cognitively.

“That's exactly what I think everyone is looking for,” he says. “To be in that zone, to be productive and have the right amount of repair happen. I don't think beta blockers and acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine and all those other opiates—those aren't the products to help most people sleep better, work better, feel better.”

Flow on

Kotler describes a route to what he calls the “cheapest flow state in the world,” also known as the “hippie speedball:” First, exercise for 25 minutes; this could include running or any other vigorous activity that quiets down the mind. Next, drink a cup of coffee. Then smoke an uplifting strain of cannabis such as Jillybean or Harlequin. All that's left to do is immerse yourself in a challenging but enjoyable pursuit. Enjoy the flow.