Conor Murphy | Flow Research Collective

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Interview on YouTube

You can watch this interview on YouTube.

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Conor Murphy

Conor Murphy was introduced as a central piece of the puzzle in Steven Kotler’s team as follows:

We also teamed up with Conor B Murphy, a whiz-bang data scientist from San Francisco so we could deploy machine learning and a big data approach to the puzzle. 

Steven Kotler

Conor Murphy lives at the intersection of data science and optimal psychology, using data and technology to understand and reinforce the best parts of human experience. He transitioned to the tech sector after spending four years leveraging data for impactful humanitarian interventions in developing countries.

He managed a multi-million dollar portfolio of grants for The Rotary Foundation focusing on developing and analyzing impact measurements in economic development initiatives, evaluating program participation and translating academic research into institutional policies. 

Outside of data and flow research, Conor is an avid skydiver, getting into the sport after reading about the intersection of action sports and flow states in The Rise of Superman.

Conor is Chief Scientist at the newly founded Flow Research Collective.

Decode Flow, Recode Humans

Flow Research Collective Website

Neurochemicals of Flow

The flow state is often associated with a chemical cocktail of neurotransmitters. If an experience has intrinsic value, there is no need for a calendar or alarm clock to remind you. The chemicals in your brain will remind you because the brain wants to relive that state.

Since the book Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler was published, the neurochemicals of flow became widely known. When the five neurochemicals of flow are released in our brain, they give us deep fulfillment, make us feel good and significantly improve our performance. But what are these five neurotransmitters?

1. Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward-motivated behavior.

2. Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) helps us to stay focused and to fully use our abilities. It raises blood sugar levels and gives us more energy. It also helps to increase our breathing and heart rate and ensures that our muscles stay strong.

3. Anandamide

A healthy dose of anandamide gives us an appropriate boost in creativity by increasing lateral thinking (the ability to make new connections in the brain).

Anandamide lowers our ability to feel anxious. It makes us more willing to test out new ideas.

4. Endorphins

Endorphins help us to free ourselves from muscle pain. This is especially useful for top athletes who want to push themselves to the limits.

Endorphins are extremely powerful – A hundred times stronger than medical morphine.

5. Serotonin

Our last ingredient to complete our chemical cocktail is serotonin. Serotonin feels like an afterglow following the flow state and is responsible for wanting to repeat the experience again and again.

All these neurochemicals are incredibly powerful and ensure that we get into a deep flow state of ultimate performance. They make us feel awesome and provide a light-hearted experience.

Open Questions in Flow Science

Though it’s not as simple as explained above. There are still a number of open questions. For example, whether flow experiences differ in quality when triggered by meditation or skydiving.

Furthermore, it turns out to be difficult to measure the individual neurotransmitters during the process. Therefore, so-called proxies (such as the number of eye blinks per minute) are used to estimate the dopamine in the blood.

Flow Cycle

However, it can be said that there is a general pattern for the development and course of the flow state. The flow cycle consists of four stages.

The Flow Cycle by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal
Graphic of the Flow Cycle by Steven Kotler / Jamie Wheal

Struggle Stage

The first stage, the Struggle Stage is accompanied by a release of various stress hormones, norepinephrine and cortisol.

Release Stage

This is followed by the Release Stage, in which the cocktail of neurochemicals mentioned above is released.

Flow Stage

The third stage is what Conor calls Flow Stage, where dopamine is the dominant neurotransmitter. However, various pleasure chemicals are also released to ensure relaxation during the flow.

Recovery Stage

The flow cycle ends with the Recovery Stage, which is accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction and relaxation.

Correlation between Flow and Creativity

Conor and the FRC team conducted a study to determine the correlation between flow and creativity. They created an analytics model.

To start Conor and his team used the classical criteria of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to conduct the study:

1. Action and Awareness Merge

The doer and the doing become one. From the perspective of consciousness, we become the action. In other words, actions feel automatic and require little or no additional resources.

2. Selflessness

Our sense of self and self-consciousness disappear. The inner critic is silenced.

3. Timelessness

We experience an altered perception of time. Past and future disappear and we are plunged into an eternal present, a deep now.

4. Effortlessness

Our sense of struggle and strife vanishes. The experience becomes intrinsically rewarding or, using a fancy word: autotelic.

5. Paradox of Control 

We have a powerful sense of control over the situation. We are captain of our own ship; master of this small slice of destiny.

6. Intrinsic Motivation

The experience is intrinsically motivating. We do it for love, not money. We do it because the activity itself is so incredibly exciting.

7. Intense Concentration 

More specifically, intense concentration on a limited field of information. Complete absorption in the present moment.

8. Challenge/Skill Balance

The challenge slightly exceeds our current skill level. We have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. We stretch but don’t snap.

9. Clear Goals

These are not big goals like winning the Olympics in downhill skiing. Rather they are much smaller chunks like getting out of the starting gate fast. It’s critical to know what we’re doing now and what we’ll do next. So our attention stays focused in the present moment.

10. Immediate Feedback

The gap between cause and effect is tiny, so we can always correct the course in mid flight.

Results of the study

The aim of the study was to find out to what extent these characteristics are active in creative problem solving. The most remarkable results were a strong correlation between creativity and intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, a challenge/skills balance also promotes the process of flow.

It is also interesting to note that there is no correlation between setting clear goals and creativity. Which makes sense as you are working more on open ended and ‘wider’ tasks.

Different Flavors of Flow

There is individual flow and group flow. When someone uses the term ‘flow’, they’re describing an individual performing at their very peak.

The term ‘group flow’ refers to the shared, collective experience of the state: a group performing at their peak.

Furthermore, flow is a spectrum experience. It’s like anger. You can be a little mad or homicidally murderous: same emotion, different degrees. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that the same applies to flow.

Flow Triggers

Flow states have pre-conditions that lead to more flow. These are called flow triggers. Essentially, flow can only arise when all of our attention is focused in the present moment. These triggers drive attention into the here and now.

Csikszentmihalyi identified four of these triggers:

  1. Complete Concentration in the Present Moment
  2. Immediate Feedback
  3. Clear Goals
  4. The Challenge-Skill-Ratio

In Steven Kotler’s book Rise of Superman you will find more research with artists & action sports athletes that shows four more flow triggers:

  1. High Consequences
    1. Some kind of risk: physical, mental, social or emotional
  2. Deep Embodiment
    1. The engagement of multiple sensory inputs simultaneously & learning through doing
  3. Rich Environment
    1. Novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in the environment
  4. Creativity
    1. Specifically: pattern recognition or linking together new ideas

Nootropics and Self-Experiments

Nootropics are drugs, supplements and other substances that may improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity or motivation in healthy individuals. 

The basis for using any kind of supplement or nootropic is a healthy lifestyle. You gotta have your sleep, nutrition and workout game right before you try to improve even more with nootropics.

Emphasizing this was also important for Conor. Since his area of competence is not in the realm of nootropics (according to his own statements), his routine is quite simple.

He prefers a combination of caffeine (1 cup of coffee) and L-Theanine (200mg). This increases concentration and facilitates flow.

Conor also mentioned a water soluble CBD oil by Ojai. I plan to do a 30 Day test with this soon.

Flow Research Collective & Zero to Dangerous Training

Conor B Murphy’s Blog

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