The Origin of Flow: If you have to run down your food on foot, you better have flow.

10 Jan 2014, Posted by admin in Flow Hacker Nation
Photo: OneEyedBird | Could flow have provided an evolutionary advantage?

One of the bigger questions surrounding flow research is the question of its role in evolution. How did natural selection latch onto the idea of radically altering consciousness to optimize performance?

About a decade back, researchers began to theorize that flow evolved in humans as the downstream result of an entirely different talent: the ability to run long distances.

If running triggered the production of a pain-releiving neurochemical in our ancestors, they would have an evolutionary advantage as hunters.

The general thinking went something like this: When our forbearers came down from the trees and onto the veldt, they learned to hunt by running down their prey. The distances covered were often enormous. So any of our ancestors whose brains produced a little bit of pain relief—in the form of pain-relieving neurochemicals—would be able to run farther and thus have a serious hunting advantage over their neighbors. These lucky few would get more food and have better health and have more children. Natural selection at work.

Anyway, this idea had long been bandied about by scientists, but the problem was how to prove it. Then, in the early 2000s, neuroscientist Arne Dietrich linked a pain-relieving neurotransmitter called anandamide to exercise-induced flow.

This discovery gave University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen an idea: compare post-exercise anandamide levels in humans and dogs (two high-activity species) against ferrets (a low-activity species), and if levels of anandamide were higher in the humans and dogs than ferrets, it would be our first proof that nature used this neurochemical to enhance our distance running capabilities.

To test the idea, Raichlen recruited runners, pet dogs, and, well, a group of ferrets, taught them all to walk and run on treadmills, then collected blood samples before and after exercise. When the samples were analyzed, anandamide levels were found to have skyrocketed in humans and dogs after running. The ferrets, meanwhile, showed no difference—the levels were the same before and after exercise.

What does this actually mean? In short, it means we humans have been using flow to accelerate performance for a very, very long time.