Focus forces all external distractions to melt away… Time stops. You lose yourself. You become one with your instincts, as if something else is dictating your actions for you. Athletes call it “The Zone.” Psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls it “Flow” – like a rapper freestyling, spittin’ rhymes without even thinking.
“The Zone” or “Flow” is a magical place. It’s where you can tap into your genius-level creative thinking and problem solving. Answers to questions and solutions to problems seem to come effortlessly from nowhere. Brilliant ideas explode into your consciousness like lightbulbs bursting from overpowering voltage! In the zone, your instincts and intuition control your actions – you act without thinking. Flow has a documented correlation with high performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity, sports, teaching, and learning (Perry, 1999; Sawyer, 1992)(Csíkszentmihályi, 1996)(Csíkszentmihályi et al., 1993)(Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, & Smethurst, 2002; Stein, Kimiecik, Daniels, & Jackson, 1995).
Edison was in THE ZONE when he came up with the idea for the lightbulb. Michael Jordan was in THE ZONE when he scored the game-winning shot with 5.2 seconds left on the clock in the 1998 NBA Finals. Daniel Day Lewis was in THE ZONE every second on set filming Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Picasso was in THE ZONE every second painting “Guernica.” I am in THE ZONE as I write this.
Qualities of THE ZONE
• decreased external awareness/distraction
• increased focus
• increased intuition
• increased talent
• increased overall performance
• increased ability to think creatively
• increased ability to solve problems
• increased ability to think outside of the box
• increased intelligence
• increased creativity
• increased motivation
• increased ability to improvise
• increased strength (physical and mental)
• increased efficiency/speed
• increased relaxation
• decreased anxiety and depression
• increased overall happiness and joy
It is said that humans only use about 10% of their brains. Whether this is true or not is still up for debate. But what the urban legend is referring to is that we are only consciously using a fraction of our brain power. Most of the brain’s mass controls autonomic processes like breathing, heartbeat, and other biological processes – things that we are not consciously aware of. While only a small percentage of neuron synapse impulses in your brain make up your conscious awareness of your surrounding environment and the task at hand. It is also said that Einstein was such a great genius because he was able to consciously tap in to the rest of his brain power, being able to use a much higher percentage of his brain to solve problems. But what he actually did was use LESS of his brain power. How? Most of our conscious thought processes are clouded by erroneous or irrelevant, worrisome, negative thoughts that don’t help the task at hand. Having 50,000–70,000 thoughts per day, it is nearly impossible to manage every synapse impulse. But what happens in THE ZONE is that all that interference fades away. While in the zone, your brain wave state slows down, you consciously think fewer thoughts, and use LESS of your brain. You slip into a more meditative state and are able to tap into the brain power of your subconscious (the part of the brain that you are not conscious of). This is why ideas or solutions seem to come from nowhere – it comes from a different part of your brain that you are not conscious of. In this state, it is much easier to complete the task at hand with grace, ease, and efficiency. Imagine trying to thread a needle or hunt your dinner with a hundred other thoughts running through your head at the same time.
So why do you care? How do you tap into THE ZONE more frequently/easily? How can you utilize it to heighten the quality of your work or increase your efficiency?
An Introduction to Brain Wave States
The frequency of electrical impulses firing across neural synapses in your brain creates a rhythm that resonates at a certain frequency which can be measured with sensitive EEG equipment. This is called a “Brain Wave.” The more thoughts you have in a period of time, the more electrical impulses, the higher the frequency, the higher the brain wave state. Here’s a breakdown of brain wave states…
Beta brain wave states are characterized by waking alertness, cognition, stimulation, agitation. While awake, most people are in a beta brain wave state most of the time. This state can also be characterized by stress, anxiety/worry, anger, fear, irritability, and our primal fight-or-flight response. The brain resonates at an alpha brain wave frequency when it is between a meditative state and a waking alert state. It is a more relaxed waking state where the brain is alert, but the body is relaxed.
The Sweet Spot – THE ZONE
The most creative and productive brain activity happens in the mid-ranges between theta and alpha brain wave states. The sweet spot is right between the two: ≈ 7Hz – 8Hz. Sports scientists have proven that peak performance on the field occurs at this frequency. Why is this spot so special? Creativity, intuition, and ideation occur somewhere between a meditative dream state and a conscious/alert state so that ideas can flow easily from the dreamy subconscious into the more present/aware conscious mind to be captured, interpreted, and communicated. At this alpha-theta border, the central nervous system reduces input from the peripheral nervous system (The DaVinci Method, Garret Loporto). With much less info to process, the brain has a much higher capacity to function and perform, while the normally inactive parts of the brain become active and operate at maximum capacity. This sweet spot is known to produce intense feelings of enjoyment, and Mihaly suggests that increased time in Flow increases overall happiness and results in success.
How to put yourself in THE ZONE
There are many ways to manage your brain waves and put yourself into an Alpha/Theta brain wave state:
• green tea/theanine
• yerba matte tea
• tobacco (this is why baseball players chew tobacco on the field, many athletes smoke cigarettes)
• listening to music (music of a higher BPM like rock music or rap music, if you notice sometimes classical music will put you to sleep because it’s at a lower BPM that resonates with Delta Brain waves)
• brainwave entertainment (listening to alpha/theta sound frequencies)
• driving fast (perhaps because of the frequency of the sound waves reverberating in the car from the rubber hitting the road, or perhaps because of the speed at which your surroundings pass you, but be careful because driving at a certain speed can also put you to sleep)
• experiencing nature
• sports/play (forcing you to be in the moment)
• using your hands intricately – woodworking, painting, model airplanes, other hobbies (anything that forces you to focus intensely)
In order to put himself in the zone to write music, Bob Marley was known to smoke a spliff(containing tobacco), then go for a run(exercise). Einstein allowed himself to drift into daydreaming(meditation) and let his mind wander to put himself into a more relaxed brain wave state so the ideas would come more freely and easily. Edison was known to take naps(meditation) when he was stuck trying to solve a problem in order to do the same. The most effective way to ensure that you are staying in an alpha/theta brain wave state frequently is to practice putting yourself there through creation or play. Athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and other highly creative people are known to have different brain wave patterns because they practically LIVE in the zone. The more you create or play, the easier it is to stay in a natural alpha/theta brain wave state.
This is why I love to paint. For me, no meditation or chanting practice has ever come close to giving me the level of serenity, relaxation, joy, and focus I feel while painting. The simple act of delicately controlling my hand holding the brush and focusing on intricate details is the only way to immediately turn off my frontal lobe and shut up my incessant ego – that voice in your head criticizing and worrying about EVERYTHING. For me, painting is the best therapy. However, balance is very important! In order to stay healthy, it is important to allow your brain to drop in and out of various brain wave states naturally. Our brains need restful sleep as well as waking alertness on a daily basis.
The Schumann Resonance
Something very interesting about the alpha-theta brain wave border frequency is that it just happens to be the same frequency at which the electromagnetic field of our own earth resonates through its ionosphere. This frequency, known as the “Schumann Resonance” (about 7.8 Hz) was predicted mathematically by Winfried Otto Schumann in 1952, and finally successfully measured by Balser and Wagner in the 1960s. What does all this scientific stuff mean? If you take a hike through the forest, the electromagnetic resonance of your own body will be affected by the earth’s natural electromagnetic field and eventually the two will resonate harmonically. Since the earth’s electromagnetic field naturally resonates at about 7.8 Hz, being in nature will overpower your own electromagnetic field and cause you to resonate at the same frequency, naturally putting you into an alpha/theta brain wave state. Our brains evolved over hundreds of thousands of years among this same frequency, so it makes sense that this is the frequency of peak performance. However, this frequency cannot be detected in your neighborhood, office, or at the mall because of cell phones, wi-fi, TV signals, and thousands of other electromagnetic waves that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Even the materials that our cities are made with (steel, aluminum, etc.) create natural Faraday cages that disrupt or completely block out the natural electromagnetic frequencies of our earth. This is why it is so important to turn your phone off every once in a while, unplug, and connect with nature.
I’ve noticed that ever since I moved up to Port Townsend, WA (surrounded by water, vast protected forests, the Olympic mountains, and untouched rugged nature), the quality of my film work has improved greatly, as well as my efficiency – I have been able to do better work more quickly. I often go on hikes to brainstorm ideas or put myself into an optimal state before editing. For this reason, I hope to live outside of major cities so I can live and work out in nature all day long!
I will leave you with an audio recording from data collected by Global Coherence Initiative's magnetic sensor (named Maggy). This audio is that electromagnetic wave data of the Earth's electromagnetic field resonating through its ionosphere, as interpreted through speakers(obviously our ears can't hear these electromagnetic waves, but these signals can be interpreted through speakers like in the movie "Contact"). Listen to it to put yourself into an optimal peak performance alpha-beta brain wave state. It is oddly relaxing and very meditative. Listen...
How did you feel while listening to the Schumann Resonance? Leave a comment below!
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Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's Ted Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en
Schumann Resonance Earth's Audio: http://www.glcoherence.org/monitoring-system/earth-rhythms.html
Rusov, V.D. (2012). "Can Resonant Oscillations of the Earth Ionosphere Influence the Human Brain Biorhythm?". arXiv:1208.4970 [physics.gen-ph]. Department of Theoretical and Experimental Nuclear Physics, Odessa National Polytechnic University, Ukraine
"The DaVinci Method" by Garrett LoPorto
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988), "The flow experience and its significance for human psychology", in Csikszentmihalyi, M., Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press