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Put the Brain on Hold, Get in the Zone


Golf wunderkind Tiger Woods, disturbed by the whir of cameras, flubs a putt in the recent Nissan Open. A musician loses the beat, spoiling a performance. A man slicing salmon in a delicatessen slips, nicking his hand.

Losing your concentration can be costly.

That's because you've snapped out of "the flow"--that just-do-it mental state athletes sometimes call "the zone."

Most people have experienced the semiconscious "autopilot" state we slip into when doing routine tasks such as folding laundry, driving a familiar route or walking to the next class.

But athletes, artists, surgeons and others actively train themselves to make this shift from concentration to instinct, and for good reason: It lets all that practice pay off without interference from the parts of the brain that deal in stress, second-guessing and doubt.

The best athletes train their minds as arduously as their muscles. In the zone, action flows seamlessly. Thinking is minimized, distractions are obliterated, the body is freed to do what it knows it can do. Zoned athletes talk about losing their sense of time, self and surroundings.

"When you are in the flow you don't know how you feel because you are so busy doing it," says flow guru Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychology professor who first investigated "flow theory" 34 years ago and wrote "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" (HarperCollins, 1990). "But afterward you say 'Wow, I never felt so alive before and this is how life could be.' "

Such intense concentration is a common experience to surfers, skiers and performers, among others. Psychologists say the experience is pleasurable because it produces a feeling of exquisite control, satisfaction and transcendent achievement.

"It is almost paradoxical . . . when you are an expert at something, the harder you try at it . . . the more you think about it, the worse you do," says Shane Murphy, author of "The Achievement Zone" (Berkley, 1996), a book that applies zone theory to work life. "Other things are in reverse. If you force yourself to try harder at a crossword puzzle, you produce better results. The expert almost has to give up control and let it happen automatically in the muscles and in the body's memory."


Acertain level of skill is necessary to get into the flow, Csikszentmihalyi says. If the challenge is much greater than one's expertise, discouragement sets in.

"We think we are teaching our muscles to do something but clearly what is happening is we are also teaching our brain to do it," says Murphy, who is giving a workshop on how to get into the zone at the Learning Annex next week. "Think of the brain as a tangled jungle of neurons . . . paths are laid out through the jungle and become stronger and stronger as we practice."

Such rehearsals allow a person to turn off the cognitive processes once they are ready to hit the ball, perform in a play or give a presentation, Murphy says. The body's action then flows automatically, effortlessly.

Some types of work provide those conditions, Csikszentmihalyi says. He has conducted several studies that show that people whose jobs produce flow states are generally happier than others. And getting into the flow early in life can lead to more fruitful, fulfilling lives.

Preliminary results of a five-year study he conducted on 1,000 teenagers suggest that those who "have flow are much more creative, watch TV less, spend less time schmoozing, have better grades and are more directed." The study subjects hit flow states, he says, when engaged in activities such as drama, sports, music and schoolwork.

Research conducted by Dan Landers, a psychology professor at Arizona State University at Tempe, points to changes in the brain activity of "zoned" athletes compared to novices. Landers measured the brain activity of archers, marksmen and basketball free-throw shooters five seconds before they performed.

"[The flow] appears to turn down the volume in the left hemisphere, which in right-handed people is associated with thinking and analyzing problems . . . the right hemisphere takes over, which is involved with simultaneous processing of information and monitoring a lot of things in the body."

Landers thinks this may explain why people describe the experience of the flow state by how it feels, such as the surgeon who describes coming out of the operating room as feeling like coming out of a trance and the archers who say it feels as if their minds go blank . . . and that they just let it happen.


The problem for many people, Csikszentmihalyi says, is that they don't know how to build flow consciousness into their lives. And the remedy isn't more leisure time either, he says.

"Free time is not structured for flow," he insists. "Rules are not binding, there is no feedback and people tend to feel bored and restless . . . the mind starts to wander, hits on something worrisome and you get depressed."

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