Why Are Neurotransmitters Important for Brain Performance?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Rise of Superman" by Steven Kotler. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are neurotransmitters important? How do they impact our abilities and daily lives?

In The Rise of Superman, journalist Steven Kotler explains how athletes are able to perform seemingly superhuman feats—it all comes down to mastering flow, or a state of deep focus, he says. He further explains why neurotransmitters are important for achieving this state of flow and boosting performance.

Read on to learn why neurotransmitters are important for brain performance, according to Kotler.

Why Are Neurotransmitters Important?

In recent decades, athletes have been shattering performance barriers at a faster rate than ever before—climbers scaling harder routes, surfers riding larger waves, and runners running faster races. In The Rise of Superman, journalist Steven Kotler argues that mastering flow, or a state of deep focus, is the secret to these, and other, seemingly superhuman feats. Kotler examines the neuroscience behind flow in his book, explaining why neurotransmitters are important when comes to achieving a state of flow and performing at your best. In this article, we’ll explain the importance of neurotransmitters to Kotler’s flow state as well as how they affect your daily life.

Your Brain in Flow

In addition to activating new regions and waves during flow, your brain also releases neurotransmitters that enhance your performance. Neurotransmitters are chemical messages that your brain cells (neurons) send in response to external stimuli. They communicate commands to your body and affect everything from your mood to your physical reactions.

According to Kotler, your brain releases five neurotransmitters when in a flow state (dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamides, and serotonin). But, why are neurotransmitters important? Kotler claims that neurotransmitters improve your ability to perform in two ways:

  1. They increase focus and energy. Dopamine and norepinephrine improve your ability to focus and recognize patterns. Additionally, when your brain releases these feel-good chemicals, you experience a burst of energy and excitement.
  2. They calm and relieve pain. Endorphins and anandamides lower your sense of fear and pain while elevating your mood and ability to think creatively. As you exit the flow state, your brain releases serotonin, which gives you a final sense of pleasure.

Entering Kotler’s Flow State

According to Kotler, if you want to enjoy the effects of a flow state and the neurotransmitters that come with it, you must first experience a phase of challenge and frustration. Without a high degree of mental exertion, your brain won’t release flow-inducing signals.

To move past the first struggle phase and progress toward flow, Kotler says that you must take a break and step away from the challenge. Kotler says that it’s important to do this because, when you release the frustration you’ve been experiencing, you make way for the five neurotransmitters of flow to arrive. For example, if you’ve been stuck trying to debug your code for a while, do something unrelated that you enjoy such as baking cookies or taking a walk.

Once you’ve relaxed your mind, refocus on your task, as doing so will often trigger your jump into flow. With your frustrations cleared away, your intuition can take over and your brain can release the neurotransmitters that allow you to be absorbed in accomplishing your task. You’ll experience a sense of control and fluidity while working.

For example, when you make a new attempt to debug your code, you might find yourself noticing mistakes in your code that you’d overlooked when your brain was overwhelmed and tired.

How Neurotransmitters Affect Your Daily Life

Kotler explains why neurotransmitters are important, describing the five that are released during a flow state. However, these neurotransmitters affect more than just your performance—your body requires a healthy balance of these chemicals to function properly in your daily life. Influencing everything from your mood to your energy levels, the five neurochemicals of flow (dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamides, endorphins, and serotonin) play a large role in your day-to-day functioning:

Dopamine: Dopamine is a mood-influencing neurotransmitter most notable for making you feel happy. It affects many of your bodily functions—motivation, in particular—and encourages you to repeat activities by making you feel good when you do them. This is why being in flow feels so enjoyable. When you have low levels of dopamine, you may experience symptoms such as exhaustion and mood swings.

Norepinephrine: Also known as noradrenaline, this neurochemical plays an important role in your threat response and is often triggered by stress. It increases your energy and awareness by dilating your pupils and increasing your breathing and heart rate. When you have low levels of this neurochemical, you may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, headaches, and have trouble sleeping.

Anandamides: These neurochemicals are also known as “bliss” molecules, which bind to cannabinoid receptors in your body to make you feel happy and relieve pain. Low levels of anandamides can result in anxiety, sadness, and a reduced ability to handle stress. 

Endorphins: Your body releases endorphins when you feel stress or pain. These neurotransmitters are inhibitory because they prevent pain signals from reaching your nerve cells. Researchers have found that increasing endorphins can relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Low levels of endorphins can result in sleep issues, impulsivity, and addiction. 

Serotonin: This neurochemical that comes at the end of flow helps regulate a variety of bodily functions such as your mood, sleep, and digestion. Unlike dopamine, which also regulates your mood, serotonin is less influential in motivation and serves more to stabilize your emotions to increase happiness and calmness. Low levels of serotonin may result in symptoms such as trouble sleeping, depression, and other mood disorders.

Why Are Neurotransmitters Important for Brain Performance?

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  • The importance of mastering flow for any activity
  • The neuroscience behind the flow state
  • Techniques for how you can encourage deep focus into your life

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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