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Flow State - The Neurochemical Super-Cocktail

Updated: Feb 1

neurochemical super-cocktail


In 2014, when I got back from a year in Costa Rica, or back to “reality” so to speak, I immediately went into research mode. I knew that I had to share this powerful Flow triggering formula I had discovered, and from my initial conversations with people about jungle spirits, shamans, and monkeys, I also knew that if this idea was going to be successful, I had to better understand the science behind the magic. And now I’ll share a little bit of it with you.

Flow - The Super Cocktail

In his book, The Rise Of Superman, Steven Kotler describes a Flow State as a neurochemical cocktail. I love that analogy. Where there’s a cocktail, there’s a formula, and a formula can be repeated. Repeating a neurochemical reaction isn't quite as simple as mixing a martini, there is still an opportunity here to create a repeatable formula.

So what’s in the Flow cocktail? Some of the major players are: 

  • Dopamine - part of our reward system. Do something you enjoy and you'll get a dopamine rush. Just like Flow, a dopamine release can be positive, if it's reinforcing a positive behavior like exercise, or negative, like in the case of drug addiction.

  • Noradrenaline - where the energy boost comes from. Part of the "fight or flight response", noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, is produced when there's a need for an immediate to be focused and alert.

  • Endorphins - an opioid produced in response to pain and effort. Our bodies love to reward us for hard work, and this is part of that process. "Endo" refers to the word endogenous, which means "from within", and "orphin", which refers to "morphine", a powerful opioid. Push yourself hard enough in a workout and you'll be rewarded with this powerful neurochemical.

  • Endocannabinoids - cannabinoids produced as part of a “persistence high”, also known as a "runner's high". The specific name of the endocannabinoid involved in a Flow State is Anandamide, and it's said to help boost creativity and promote lateral thinking, a powerful tool for problem-solving in high-pressure situations.

  • Oxytocin - the “love molecule” that helps create social bonds. This one is especially noticeable in "Collective Flow" situations, such as group fitness classes or a rock concert. It also explains why we feel so connected to the world around us when we're in Flow.

  • Serotonin - the “happiness molecule” and the main reason for “After Flow”. People who struggle with depression are often prescribed SSRIs, which stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, to help boost their serotonin levels. In a Flow State, serotonin appears at the tail end of the experience, and is responsible for the sense of strength and confidence that can last for hours after the initial reaction, a state I like to think of as "After Flow".

Each of these chemicals is pretty powerful on its own, which is why Flow is such a powerful and magical state - it’s a super-cocktail of neurochemistry!

Understanding these neurochemicals, and how and why they're produced, can play a big part in both developing Flow-triggering formulas, as well as creating strategies to use Flow to tap into our ultimate potential and perform to the best of our abilities. For example, we can leverage a dopamine rush to create positive habits, like regular exercise, and we can use a surge in serotonin to help with anxious and depressive tendencies.

But Flow is more than neurochemistry, and to truly understand how to trigger it, we also need to understand the Stages of Flow and how you can use combinations of movement and breath to recreate those stages.

Patrick Sebastien

Performance Coach

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