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Why Does Being ‘In the Zone’ Make You Act So Weird?

From athletes to gamblers to artists, for some reason, being fully absorbed in a task results in a constant stream of verbal diarrhea

“Buller! Buller!” “Deemo, cheemo, feemo, peemo…” “Yogurt. You, gut. Yeeowg hat.”

That’s the sound of my kids playing Monopoly, the popular board game that takes about the same amount of time to play as being sued over a real-life property deal, and is only slightly more entertaining. The most interesting part of playing it, for me, is always observing my sons’ strange, disconnected utterances, which I’ve become certain are also the sound, in its purest form, of the mental phenomenon known as “flow.” This is the heightened state of focus and cognitive performance that athletes and excitable people who work in sales often refer to as “The Zone,” and that psychologists like to call “optimal experience.” But my boys are seven and ten and no longer given to talking in toddler-level gibberish: Their flow sounds pretty suboptimal to me.

Flow, or this particular manifestation of it, doesn’t seem to bother other people, but it has always bugged me to no end. I was somewhere around their age when I first noticed how some people — most noticeable in boys, but girls do it too — tend to get quietly demented when they’re fully engaged in certain tasks. When engrossed in things like building Legos, playing video games or shooting pool (especially shooting pool), nonsense rhymes, made-up words, half-puns, snippets of songs or commercial jingles, and slogans said to no one in particular spill from their mind like dog-drool, while it’s otherwise engaged on completing whatever mission it’s been assigned.

To be clear, I don’t get tripped up in the same way when I encounter verbal tics or genuine disorders like Tourette’s syndrome, which have a clear neurological explanation and are involuntary — that all makes sense to me. By contrast, what vexes me about adults who speak in tongues while in a trance of concentration is that they appear to have the option to either blurt out something jarring and confusing, or not to do that, and yet out it comes anyway. One guy I used to work with, for instance, would occasionally murmur, “Izzie whizzy, let’s get busy,” while staring blankly into his computer screen: The phrase comes from a long-running British kids’ TV show, and for us Brits, it’s buried deep in our collective consciousness, but it clearly has no place in a modern office environment where some people might actually be called Isabel.

Time and time again, I’ve found that nothing jolts me out of my own zone of deep concentration than the muttered mantras and bonkers babblings of other people’s flow states. I may well be alone in this, but I just find it a really, really creepy habit.

I don’t think I am alone, though. For one thing there’s a fine Hollywood tradition of depicting desperate gamblers spouting game-focus drivel in casino settings. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman illustrates it beautifully with his obnoxious craps player in this scene from the 1996 movie Hard Eight. His spiel is partly inter-gambler trash-talking, but mingled with it is the exact stream-of-consciousness gobbledygook I’m talking about:

Shaka-laka-doo. As an aside, Philip Baker Hall in this scene, Hoffman’s “Old Timer” mark walking away from the madness, perfectly captures how encountering this sort of thing makes me feel. As does the guy who shuts down poker-playing Elvis here.

Why You’re No Longer “You” When You’re in Flow

So what’s going on here? Why should deep focus result in shallow nonsense? While they might not be keen to emphasize its manic side, self-help authors and motivational speakers have seized on the concept of flow and built a mini-industry around it since the phenomenon was first elaborated by the pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. As he recounts in a TED talk from 2004, Csikszentmihalyi chose to characterize the strange feeling of disembodied half-aware activity as “flow” after he had interviewed a number of creative people about how they felt while they were producing great work. Describing the experience of one of his early subjects, a successful composer, he says: “His body disappears. His identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention — like none of us do — to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So his existence is temporarily suspended.”

For an illustration from the other end of the cultural spectrum, which highlights how being immersed in flow can also mess with your sense of time passing, here’s the former world-record holder of the high score in Donkey Kongdescribing his experience in 2017: “The record-breaking game itself took about three hours and 20 minutes. To me in actuality it felt like about 20 minutes. Whenever you play these games it’s just best to zone out. It’s almost like meditation; you get very zen. Whenever you can get into that state of mind, you always know you’re going to do really well.” Before ruining it slightly by saying: “The fireballs smell fear, and if you’re afraid, they’ll come and kill you.”

It’s this eerie, ghost-in-the machine quality that has allowed The Zone, in pursuit of whichever goal you might be going after, to be presented as the Holy Grail for success, creativity and productivity. The thing is, though, as pointed out by Bobby Hoffman — associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Central Florida, author of books including Hack Your Motivation, and we’ll assume, no relation to Philip Seymour — the psychological reality of flow couldn’t be more mundane. It’s an altered state of consciousness, yes, but one that nearly all of us are used to experiencing every day.

According to the research, says Hoffman, “Most people report this ‘optimal experience’ when they’re driving, because they’re in the ideal situation. Not when you’re in a storm or similar circumstances where you really have to concentrate, but in your general driving procedure, you’re in flow and you’re not really thinking about anything. You’re just doing what you’re doing.”

When performing any task, you can slip into a flow state as long as a certain balance exists between some elements that you are well-practiced in and some aspects that are new to you, or unfamiliar enough to stimulate your attention. “To get to the point of flow, you really have to have a challenge that’s commensurate with your skill,” says Hoffman. “It can’t be too hard, and it can’t be too easy; it has to be just right… Because if it’s too hard, then you’re thinking, ‘Oh, what am I supposed to do?’” — and this throws down a series of road bumps that prevent you from finding your smooth racing line. Meanwhile, “if it’s too easy, you start thinking about other stuff,” which, in terms of focusing on the quickest route to reaching your destination, is an airbag inflating in your face.

So you’re most likely to find your flow in the sweet spot between your comfort zone and what lies outside it. Which, if you think about it, neatly maps to the experience of driving, where you’re sitting in the safe space of your car yet exposed to the madness and incompetence of others on public roads.

If it’s such a routine state of mind, though, why does it also seem so alien and mysterious that millions of us seek expert advice and buy books on how to access it? The answer to this comes from one of optimal experience’s other oddities: The fact that your flow state is a fragile butterfly. Or, if you like, a flowflake. As soon as your brain realizes it’s in The Zone, it unceremoniously kicks you out of it. “It’s really an all-or-nothing proposition,” says Hoffman, who notes that conscious awareness of your enhanced mental state can be as much of a flow-killer as an external distraction, like a noise from the street outside or a text message landing mid-serve. “That intrusion will break everything up,” Hoffman explains, though he adds, “You can recover quickly if you’re engaged. But for some people that’s a death sentence.”

This elusive feature of flow has made it notoriously difficult for psychologists to study reliably: You can’t ask someone about it while they’re in it without it immediately vanishing in a puff of, “Whoa, where was I?” One possible explanation for The Zone’s allergy to conscious awareness, though, comes from the neuroscience of flow states, which is slowly beginning to piece together what’s going on in the brain when it’s inside the rabbit hole.

One brain-mapping study from 2014, carried out at Germany’s University of Ulm, used MRI scans on subjects who were asked to carry out mental arithmetic tasks personally adjusted to provide just the right dose of challenge to nudge them into math-induced flow. When optimal experience took hold, neural activity was seen to alter in a number of brain regions, but one of the most significant changes was a slowdown of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), an area that has been linked to how we relate to other people, particularly when it comes to self-awareness and mimicking behavior. “We therefore conclude,” said the researchers, “that the… flow-associated decrease in MPFC activity represents one of the main features of flow experiences, that is, a reduction in self-referential processing.” They suggested this quieting of activity relating to the self also might contribute to the zen-like pleasure that people seem to get during flow states.

All of which provides some clue as to why Csikszentmihalyi’s composer talked of his identity “disappearing from his consciousness,” as well as why your own flow becomes so fleeting as soon as you start to notice it.

The shutdown of the self-monitoring part of your brain also sheds a bit of light on the phenomenon of choking experienced by many athletes. Here’s basketball legend Kobe Bryant talking about what he associates with being in The Zone: “Everything slows down and you just have supreme confidence. But when that happens, you really do not try to focus on what’s going on, because you can lose it in a second.”

And in a mild change of pace, here’s the late, tragic British darts legend (yes, such a person exists) Eric Bristow, whose career was cut short by a flow-killing condition called dartitis: “When you’re playing well, you just flick ’em, like this… When you’re just flowing, away she go.”

Why “The Zone” Is A Place of Stress

The importance of flow to sports professionals highlights another one of its side effects that I’ve always found pretty off-putting: When people are engrossed in their efforts to succeed, it often seems to come with a surge in competitiveness that’s at odds with their character. Give a normally affable, sweet-natured individual an Xbox controller, and this sort of thing can happen:

Zone-rage is one reason I’ve never liked team sports. But perhaps I shouldn’t be taking the angry outbursts of teammates so personally: When deep focus seems to be heightening the urge to win, says Hoffman, the key question to ask is, “Competitiveness with whom?” “A lot of times in video-game play you do just want to beat your buddy,” Hoffman explains. But also, he adds, “You can be competitive with a standard: The fastest time to reach the goal is three minutes, and I’m going to do it in two minutes and 50 seconds.”

If this calls to mind athletes who obsess over their season averages or personal bests — or perhaps the Donkey Kong elite, still chasing high-scores on an arcade game from the 1980s — it’s because the drive to succeed, just like the challenges that trigger optimal experience, is a supremely walled-off, personal thing.

“Actually,” says Hoffman, “research finds that the best comparison to improve performance is when you use yourself as the competition — I’m going to reach the video game goal, and I’m going to do it in less time than I did last time.” Any other players on the field, meanwhile, have become pretty much invisible to you. “You don’t care about anybody else: If you start caring about somebody else, you’re done.” And because you’re not seeing other people as truly present, the social inhibitions that would usually stop you from blurting out something weird like “Shaka-laka-doo” or “Izzie whizzy etc.” aren’t there either.

But, to return to where we started, where exactly is this verbal overspill from flow experience actually bubbling up from? Biological science to the rescue again (maybe): In 2014, a team of researchers from the University of Trier and the University of Luxembourg published a paper that pointed toward the similarities between how people enter into flow and how the body deals with stress. Pursuing the relationship between the two, they found firm correlations between flow states and a number of the standard physiological markers of stress: Levels of the hormone cortisol in the body; arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (which regulates the body’s fight-or-flight stress response); and a series of stress-regulators in the brain known as the HPA axis.

The patterns of how flow and stress response developed over time proved so similar, in fact, that it led them to conclude that “moderate sympathetic arousal and HPA-axis activation and possibly a co-activation of both branches of the autonomic nervous system characterize task-related flow experience” — which is to say, flow is itself a mental response to moderate levels of stress.

This seems like the opposite of the calm, zen-like frame of mind so often associated with flow. But in supporting their findings, the researchers pointed out, “A stress-relevant situation can be appraised as a threat, a loss or a challenge.” And: “In contrast to threat and loss, challenge is followed by pleasurable emotions.” They also noted that in his research, Csikszentmihalyi himself had identified rock climbing as one of the most Zone-prone activities, while other psychologists had fixed on graffiti artists as another group that reported high frequency flow episodes while out on their spraying escapades — and both of these are fairly stressful occupations.

Recall that flow states, as originally postulated by Csikszentmihalyi, are our minds’ way of clearing bandwidth and redistributing our attention so it can be dedicated to a task that demands most of our finite processing power. Our bodies’ stress response is designed for much the same thing: To focus all the body’s energy on reacting to potential threats. So it makes sense that the two would go together.

The stream of garbage utterances, suggests Hoffman, might be helping some people to sustain that cognitive energy over long periods of time; “a strategy to perpetuate your motivation.” As we carry out tasks, our motivation oscillates in intensity, undergoing peaks and troughs, he explains. “It goes up and down, and you really need to be aware of what you’re going to do in those lulls. And one strategy that people use is [talking to themselves], saying, ‘All right, I can do this,’ or whatever. So it may be perceived as gibberish, but it could be a strategy the person is using to continue the energy and the effort and the focus.”

Alternatively, he suggests it might be “a distraction that is helping you recoup for a minute,” from the strain of maintaining all “that focused cognitive effort.” Either way, those spontaneous mumblings are likely to be bridging those moments where the foot comes off the accelerator and optimal experience is most vulnerable to slipping out of The Zone and back into fragmented, flat-footed, regular cognition again.

So in keeping the normal world of social interactions at bay — where we’re hyper aware of others and how we’re behaving in front of them — this absent-minded word-farting does seem to serve a purpose after all. Which makes me inclined to see it as a little more forgivable and a lot more natural in the future.

As for how much control the people who do this are able to exercise over their verbal overflow, though, that’s still not all that clear. Given that flow states themselves seem to place people on hold as far as their conscious awareness is concerned, I’m guessing the Zone vocalizers don’t have too much power to stem the tide. But in case I’m wrong about that and you can choose whether you engage in flow-speak, maybe next time, shaka-laka-don’t.