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​The Neuroscience of Peak Performance and Flow

What is happening in the minds and bodies of musicians when they play their best? Are peak performance and flow simply subjective perceptions of performance excellence?  Or are they distinct mental states, sets of optimal behaviors, a heightened sense of self-confidence or some trick of human nature?

Despite the confusion, we do have language to describe these experiences—being in the zone, in rhythm, in a groove, playing unconscious, even the so-called runner’s high. For starters, peak performance refers to optimal physical behaviors while psychologists define flow as a mental state. For musicians, it is both mental and physical because of what they feel –calm, alert, focused, challenged but confident, present in the moment and supremely engaged in the task. When that feeling is combined with the thrill of playing music, magic happens !

If only we could bottle it, right? Thanks to neuroscience, that may now be possible.

Research findings have identified three markers that reveal how and when flow occurs: alpha/theta/gamma brain waves, brain coherence and deactivation of the dorso-lateral, pre-frontal cortex (DLPFC).

First, the flow state is located at the crossover point between alpha and theta brain waves (8 hz and below). As brain activity slows from the relaxing alpha state into the more hypnagogic theta wave (below 8 hz), the neural network becomes highly attuned. At the same time, super fast (40-100 hz) gamma waves, triggered by theta, go into action. Gamma waves connect information drawn from various parts of the brain that are involved in music-making, allowing skill learning, procedural memory and self expression to settle into a rhythm.

Secondly, synchronization between the left and right hemispheres or brain coherence is another marker for flow. Both hemispheres must be working complementarily to integrate artistic expression and technical skills. Cardio exercise, meditation and yoga along with brain-based clinical techniques like Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) all promote brain coherence through bi-lateral stimulation.

Finally, a temporary brain state called transient hypofrontality has been identified that  enhances flow by lowering the activation of DLPFC. This part of the brain hosts our inner critic, our voice of self-doubt that can trigger cognitive anxiety. Cardio exercise re-directs blood flow away from the DLPFC to the motor parts of the brain, enabling a more embodied focus without interference from self-consciousness, distraction or negative thinking.

These findings can be applied to mental skill training that has been the hallmark of sport psychology over the last fifty years. The six key skills are relaxation, imagery, goalsetting, self talk, concentration and pre-performance routines.

Relaxation is the first key because performance anxiety usually inhibits peak performance. Exercise is a basic treatment for all types of anxiety. Daily meditation over a minimum of eight weeks reduces both state and trait anxiety by lowering the resting heart rate and enhancing brain plasticity. Neurofeedback (EEG biofeedback) is now being used to train the brain to enter the alpha/theta brain states on demand.

Imagery engages the power of the senses, especially visualization, to mentally depict what peak performance should look and feel like. Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal is a new technique that combines mental rehearsal with moderate cardio exercise (120 – 140 HR using an elliptical trainer or stationary bike) to prime learning and reinforce  process goals. Mental rehearsal is effective because mirror neurons activate various muscle groups via the peripheral nervous system almost as much as with physical practice.

Goalsetting is a motivational tool for directing one’s efforts toward optimal learning. Goalsetting supports deliberate practice that encourages musicians to concentrate their efforts on their most challenging repertoire. Exercising in the morning before practice while mentalizing on what needs work helps identify practice goals and primes the brain for learning later on.

Self-talk reveals the psychological relationship between the person and the performer such as having a positive outlook and being mentally tough when under stress. Research shows that positive thoughts and feelings promote creativity whereas negative emotions stimulates critical thinking that can lead to self-consciousness. Not surprisingly, having a positive mental attitude is a key component of flow.

Concentration emphasizes attentional skills and mental discipline to focus on the challenges involved in musical performance. The mind must be fully engaged in the moment, free of distractions and immersed in the task. Quite simply, the best way to build focusing skills is to learn to live in the moment ! Not so easy, as many of us have found out !

Finally, pre-performance routines allow musicians to find that groove that puts them in a positive performance mindset. The key tools are breathing and centering exercises, finding one’s optimal zone of activation and converting pre-performance jitters into excitement.

Ultimately, playing music in the flow state is it’s own best reward, one reason why musicians are so passionate about pushing their musical boundaries. So when it happens, embrace it!

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