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Surprising Science

A Wow Explanation of What Happens When You Experience a Wow Moment

Steven Kotler explains what happens in your brain at aha moments.

Flow. It’s a brain state that fascinates scientists because it appears to be the well from which creativity flows. It was first identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi his 1988 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperiencePsychology Today describes it this way:


Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.

As Steven Kotler says, flow has to do with neuroelectricity. When you’re in a daydreamy, or “alpha,” state, your brainwaves are oscillating at a rate of 8 to 12 Hz. (That’s 8 to 12 times per second.)

  • Simplified 10 Hz alpha wave
  • When you’re on the edge of dreaming and sleep, you’re in “theta,” where oscillations have slowed down to 3 to 8 Hz.

  • Simplified 5 Hz theta wave
  • But oddly, it’s in-between these two dreamy states where flow—the most engaged state there is—happens. Could it be that when the two states are balanced just so, a third state emerges like a difference tone in music?

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    That’s not the only weird thing, either. When you have a flash of inspiration or clarity—an aha moment—your brain briefly produces high-intensity “gamma” brainwaves oscillating 38 to 42 times per second, the fastest that brainwaves can go.

  • Simplified 40 Hz gamma wave
  • You can’t stay in a gamma state; it’s just a quick spike. But how surprising is it that the only way to get to the ultra-clarity of high-frequency gamma is from the dreamy edge of low-frequency theta?

  • Headline image: ktsdesign

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