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Monday, July 05, 2004

Is Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Science? (2001

The flow experience, as commonly defined, represents a state of pleasure, good feelings or euphoria that occurs when one is attending to some important task that represents a perfect match between demand and skill. Of course, during the course of any performance, a perfect matching is impossible, since slight mismatches between demand and skill occur near constantly. Thus a rock climber or creative artist, when tasked to the limit of his or her capability is not absolutely sure that the next move will not result in a fall or a loss of inspiration. Thus a matching of demand and skill encompasses behavior that is to a small degree uncertain in its results. If this simple assumption is granted, then the demand/skill match perfectly coheres with a cardinal principal in contemporary neuroscience that holds that the human brain is keenly sensitized to prediction error, and that its chemistry will be altered in specific ways when prediction error is highly positive and sustained. To wit, the neuromodulator dopamine, a neurochemical that modulates global areas of the brain (neocortex) is released when an individual (and this includes our mammalian cousins) perceives a positive discrepancy in its environment that was heretofore imperfectly predicted. This has recently been empirically demonstrated through simple brain scans (fMRI) that have detected heightened levels of dopamine in a variety of flow producing tasks, from game playing to creative behavior. Further, elevated dopamine levels not only result in subjective reports of euphoria or pleasure, but also in increased levels of 'synaptic efficiency' that leads to heightened mental capacity. As scientific explanations usually do however, the literary breathlessness that accompanies common descriptions of flow (e.g., undreamed of state of consciousness, psychic energy) is replaced with a more down to earth and slightly sinister explanation. Namely, the vaunted flow experience is little different from a cocaine high, which depends also on elevated dopamine levels.

So why care about the neuro-psychology of flow?

Although the neuro-psychology of flow is plainly transparent, in nearly all its literature in print and on the web, this critical element of the phenomenon has been totally ignored. The primary reasons commonly ventured for this has been that the neuro-psychology of flow is mere reductionism, whereas flow is about subjective experience. This of course is rubbish. To reduce any phenomenon to its constituent parts must not be confused with using such a reduction as part and parcel of an explanation of that phenomenon. Thus, we may know that the subjective experience of a pain in the neck may be reduced to strained muscles or infected blood vessels, however we explain such pains through a recourse to our subjective agonies and its proximal physiological causes. That is of course what science does, provide explanations, and it is explanations that generate the procedures from wonder drugs to wonder cars that enable us to cope with our world. In the 14th century, the 'science' of astronomy was interested in predictions, and by noting systematically the motions of the stars, the events that populated the universe, from eclipses to the seasons could be foretold. Explanation was an afterthought, and was provided by the bible or through ad hoc constructions like crystal spheres. But as Galileo demonstrated, science is more than prediction, it is explanation, and to be scientific means to always quest for the heart of the matter, not the heart of the prediction. Similarly, flow research is anchored in 14th century notions of science, with explanations of flow being a mere ad hoc concoction of brain waves, psychic energy, or consciousness raising. By not even noting the importance of a complete explanation of flow that integrates the phenomenological and physiological aspects of flow, explanations for flow become mere literary devices, and that is what they have been to this point. Thus flow is NOT science because it does not embrace the explanatory comprehensiveness of science (or in other words, it implicitly rejects the epistemology of science). Until the literature on flow does this it will remain what it has always been, merely literature.

For a more detailed and reference laden take on the same phenomenon and its practical and philosophical implications, the following article, published recently in the behavioristic journal 'Behavior and Social Issues', demonstrates how even behaviorism is not science but literature, but unfortunately without Csikszentmihalyi's poetry.

This new flow theory is built on a new theory of incentive motivation based on actual observations of the brain 'in action' that has emerged within the last five years. The following link explains it briefly through the use of the simple example of a nickel slot machine.

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