INTRO: Shining Light on the Dark Side of Flow-State

The first and greatest victory is for man to conquer himself. – Plato

Des-porto, the Latin root of sport, means to carry away (Jones & Daly, 1992). Modern athletes seek a flow state that will carry them away. Flow is a highly ordered state of consciousness with complete engagement in a task strongly correlated with peak performance (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). When athletes find flow, they transcend thought, emotion, and sense of self; athletes experience heightened awareness of goals, increased confidence in their ability to meet challenges, amplified concentration on the task at hand, a sense of merging action and awareness, transformation of time, deeply rewarding intrinsic motivation, an intensified sense of control, and a loss of self-awareness (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). However, recent research highlighted that not all flow states have identical consequences of goal achievement and well-being; flow has many lesser known negative consequences (Partington, Partington, & Olivier, 2009; Schüler, 2012)

The dark side of flow is a form of self-regulation failure; flow may impair individuals’ abilities to remain self-aware and engaged in behaviors that favor long term goals and survival. Self-control is particularly valuable in action and adventure sports because these athletes risk the ultimate form of self-regulation failure: accidental death. The dark side of flow is hypothesized to result from the complete absorption of self (loss of self-awareness) in flow, and the narrowing of attention (resulting in emotional/behavioral inflexibility), which can lead to incongruities between ones current actions and their long-term goals and personal values (Schüler, 2012). Moreover, the perceived sense of control and other enjoyable qualities in flow can be a deeply rewarding mechanism that results in a dependency/addiction to flow—and thus difficulties coping with mundane daily life where flow is absent (Partington, Partington, & Olivier, 2009; Thatcher, Wrestschko, & Fridjhon, 2008). Indeed, athletes seeking high-flow-states may be at increased risk for emotional dis-regulation when they cannot attain flow.

Neuroscientist Arne Dietrich’s (2003, 2004a, 2006, 2009) Transient Hypo-Frontality theory (THT) of flow outlined the challenges flow may present for maintaining self-regulation. According to THT, flow state is a result of a down-regulation (i.e., a decrease in activation) in the frontal cortex, hypothesized to be the most evolutionarily advanced area of the brain related to executive functioning, including the concept of self. Dietrich (2004a) argued that decreasing activity in the frontal cortex may improve execution of well-learned processes in the deeper brain structures (e.g., the basal-ganglia) without the interference of thought or self-awareness. Flow and transient hypo-frontality enable execution of well-learned behaviors with great efficiency, but this efficiency comes at the cost of cognitive and behavioral flexibility, which the brain stores in the frontal lobe. There is an efficiency/flexibility trade-off; high-flow state athletes have increased efficiency but decreased flexibility of emotion and behavior. Unfortunately, a dependence on efficiency may impair self-regulation and place action and adventure athletes at an increased vulnerability of death.

Given the potentially negative consequences of flow-state, high-flow-seeking athletes may benefit from employing complimentary strategies to facilitate self-regulation. Mindfulness may be a powerful strategy to enhance athletes’ self-regulation. Mindfulness is an openhearted style of attention to thoughts and feelings that is non-judgmental, in the present moment, and on purpose (Kabat-Zinn, 1994; 2015). Mindfulness does not create a complete loss of self-awareness, like flow, but there is a loss of attachment to thoughts that can provide an optimal psychological state similar to flow (Goleman, 2003). Mindfulness provides the rewarding freedom from self-awareness that exists in flow in an entirely different way. Furthermore, mindfulness is an effective approach to adaptive emotion regulation and self-control (Aherne, Moran, & Lonsdale, 2011; Kabat-Zinn, 1985, 1986, 2015; Bishop, 2002; Siegal, 2007; Anderson, Lau, Segal, Bishop, 2007). Unlike flow, during mindfulness, the brain increases activation in certain areas of the frontal lobe, thus promoting cognitive and emotional flexibility (Sheldon, Prentice, Halusic, 2015; Dietrich, 2003, 2004a, 20006, 2009). Additionally, mindfulness has been shown to increase flow and athletic performance due to its ability to improve present moment focus (Cathcart, McGregor & Groundwater, 2014). Hypothetically, mindfulness may help athletes effectively manage dangerous efficiency/flexibility trade-off addictions inherent in flow.