How a neuroscientist finds her flow

"I think of flow from the perspective of the brain. When I’m in a state of flow, it feels like time stops."

Posted on: May 24, 2018

In positive psychology, flow refers to the feeling of being totally in the zone. It’s when you are so deeply involved in an activity of enjoyment and creativity that you lose track of time. Our #BeintheFlow blog series explores how real and inspiring people find their flow. 

 

My name is Julia Hamer and I’m a neuroscientist. I study the brain — mostly concussions — but I’m moving into the dementia field, looking at how sugar affects the brain.

I think there are different levels and different states of immersion that could be considered “flow.” In neuroscience, it’s synonymous to your mental load or attentional load; your capacity to do work and at what efficacy. For me, I know there are things that can help me modulate these processes.

I think of flow from the perspective of the brain. It controls the rest of our body and our ability to act, do, think, learn, listen and see all the things we are capable of as human beings. There are things that can help with stabilization, whether it’s stress or hormones or anything else.

For me, my first go-to is my nutrition and hydration. If you’re not fully hydrated, that leads to headaches and mental fog. I always try to have lemon water in the morning or drink something something alkaline. I try to keep great nutrition throughout the day to keep my energy stable and my mood stable.

“When I’m in a state of flow, it feels like time stops. You aren’t really cognizant of the time passing by.” 

My second go-to is mindfulness and my breath practice. My day can definitely be stressful, so I try to really focus on my breath and breathing slowly. That can help regulate my heart rate, and change what is known as your heart rate variability.

People who do a breath practice, whether it’s meditation or mindfulness, can actually modulate what their resting heart rate variability is. Essentially, that’s just what your baseline is before stressors come your way. Then, when stressors do hit, you have less of a roller-coaster response and you’re more stabilized.

That’s something I like to practice in the morning; really setting my breath before I’m immersed in something stressful.

Last, but not least, is increasing my heart rate intentionally. I always doing some physical activity, no matter what my day looks like — whether it’s raining or snowing — it’s about getting my heart rate up instead of increasing the anti-inflammatory phosphates so I can be at a great baseline again for the next day.

A bit of exercise, a bit of mindfulness, breath, meditation, and the whole hydration-nutrition piece is how I get into an optimal state of mental flow, or flow state.

When I’m in a state of flow, it feels like time stops. You aren’t really cognizant of the time passing by. You’re in a state or trance of just being. Without thinking about the past or thinking about the present, you’re sort of just focused on the task at hand.

I’m happiest and most fulfilled when I’ve accomplished multiple things in one day, and fill a few different pockets that make me happy. So if I’m able to have that mindfulness factor, get nutrition in, have good exercise and get work done — those are the four checkmarks that make you feel freakin’ awesome. But if the nutritional piece is not there, if you’re dehydrated, then it’s sort of a ticking time bomb if you’re missing one of those core components. I feel best when I can check those boxes off.

And a little bit of chocolate. It’s all about balance.

My advice to anyone is to begin with the basics: Your human physiology. What are you putting into your body is a great place to start. We all have to eat every day. So it’s about being mindful of what you are putting into your body and knowing how that’s going to affect your flow. The second part is your breathing. You also have to breathe every day (whether you’re aware of it or not), so just being mindful, slowing down those breaths, even if it’s just for two minutes, or a minute, just slowing down those breaths can have such a positive impact on the rest of your day.

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