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Sunday, April 03, 2005

In the Zone: A bio-behavioristic analysis of the flow experience (1999)


In the last thirty years, an extensive literature has accumulated that has established the existence of a state of pleasure, well being, and increased cognitive efficiency that occurs when one is performing an absorbing task. This flow state occurs in a perceptual channel or ‘zone’ that reflects a matching of demand to skill, and frequently occurs in creative, sporting, or other circumstances that demand total attention. Explanations for flow primarily consist of a host of inferred mental states that are ungrounded to actual bio-behavioral processes. In particular, the somatic and neural concomitants of the flow response have been scarcely investigated, and have never been systematically addressed. The purpose of this article is to integrate current research in learning theory, cognitive science, and neuro-psychology with these observations, and to provide a synthetic theory of the flow experience that will account for all manifestations of the experience, and provide clear and testable predictions related to its elicitation and control.

The Flow Experience

In the early seventies, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered from the basis of thousands of interviews a common subjective experience of pleasure, interest, and even ecstasy that was derived from activities that perfectly matched one’s skills with the demands for performance. Rock climbers, musicians, chess players, surgeons all reported this "flow" state when their activities possessed this perceptual structure (Csikszentmihalyi, 1977), and subsequently reported a greater interest in these tasks as a result of this experience. Csikszentmihalyi defined the flow response as a "holistic response" or an "optimal state of experience is one in which there is order in consciousness." "This happens when psychic energy, or attention, is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunity for action." (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) Flow "provides a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting a person into a new reality. It pushes a person to higher levels of performance, and leads to previously undreamed of states of consciousness. In this growth of self lies the key flow activities." "Potentially negative experiences can be transformed into flow by 1) setting clear goals to strive toward, 2) becoming immersed in the activity chosen, 3) paying attention to what is happening, and 4) learning to enjoy immediate experiences." The flow state has been defined as "an intrinsic reward for participation in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1977), as an optimal state that occurs when there is a balance between the perceived challenges of a situation and a person’s skills or capabilities for action (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), and as a centering of attention on a limited stimulus field (Webster, Trevino, and Ryan, 1993). Flow is also characterized by a heightened sense of playfulness (Webster and Martocchio, 1992), self control (Ghani and Deshpande. 1994), increased learning (Canter, Rivers and Storrs, 1985), and increased positive subjective experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). In keeping with the implied reality of multiple motivational processes, these definitions scarcely refer to information but rather to mind states such as levels of consciousness, attention, or playfulness or states of intentionality such as intrinsic reward, self-control, goal setting, autotelic personality, etc.

What is immediately distinguishing about almost all commentary on the flow experience is its thoroughgoing metaphorical content. Flow occurs because psychic energy is invested, consciousness is ordered, undreamed states of consciousness are reached, and when we are immersed into activity. Flow doesn’t refer to behavioral, neural, or somatic variables, but to other domains of perceptual experience that reflect disembodied levels of experience. Flow is composed of distinctive rational, perceptual, and emotional domains that follow with each other like the chain of boxes in a flow chart. Thus a demand/skill match is followed by attention that is followed or attended to by ‘senses’ of playfulness, self-control, enjoyment, etc. All of these different domains act as different segmented psychological faculties. These domains represent different psychological phenomena, and are seen as separate but interacting agencies. Flow is distinctive among motivating processes because it is not only signaled by a perception of a matching of skill and demand, but also incorporates other inferred motivating processes such as hypnosis, play, self actualization, and psychic energy (attention). Indeed, the critical element of purely informative or perceptual events such as the matching of skill to demand seem almost incidental when lost in this profuse list of motivational processes which are incorporated into the flow construct.

The flow experience is generally defined with little or no reference to any concomitant bio-behavioral processes. It is an experience that can be accessed through conscious introspection, and can be defined through pure syntax alone, with no importance attached to its physiological dependencies, or its semantics. Thus, in contrast to the profusion of inferred or metaphorical characteristics of flow, the physiological correlates to flow have been scarcely investigated and have been only generally or partially described, or in the case of somatic and neural responses, not described at all. Indeed, the neural correlates to flow have been reduced to metaphorical representations of the mind that engage hydraulic or electromechanical models that render the mind with cartoonish simplicity. Thus, flow is depicted as the result of the vaguely defined containment, channeling and alignment of emotions, feedback loops, attentional energies and forces, mental "cool" states, or as the tuning of the arousal and inhibition of neural circuitry (Goleman, 1995). More remarkably, there has been no experimental investigation into the nature of the somatic states that parallel flow. Specifically, the visceral and musculoskeletal concomitants to flow have never been examined.

Methodological Considerations in the Study of Flow

Studies on flow predominantly employ between group designs that statistically cross correlate or factor analyze the self-reports of individuals in various life settings. These reports are generally collected at set time intervals using beepers to remind subjects to periodically note their feelings. However, by relating self reports for groups of individuals, the generalized conclusions that invariably follow cannot account for molecular variances in behavior such as latency, scalability, response strength, response content, etc. that characterize distinctive psychological processes (Sidman, 1960). By virtue of an exclusive reliance on between group designs, flow is depicted as a steady state behavior that varies only in its linguistic representations. Thus flow is invariant as a state, but nonetheless engages various metaphorical descriptions such as flowing sensation, self-actualization, intrinsic motivation, psychic energy, etc.

In contrast to the presumption that between group designs are the methods of choice to explore the nature of flow states, in actuality between group designs are best used to suggest further procedures rather than determine processes. For example, it may be determined through a polling of thousands of individuals that those who consume several portions of broccoli a day have a statistically lower incidence of cancer than those who do not. This finding would therefore inform the direction of future research that employs procedures that attempt to derive the actual biochemical processes that are responsible for the therapeutic properties of broccoli. Similarly, the use of between group designs in flow research has established the fact that individuals report a remarkable feeling of euphoria, interest, and heightened cognitive abilities when absorbed in demanding tasks. However, these designs can only inform different procedures that are capable of examining the processes that underlie the flow state.

A second problem is that the data language that is employed to interpret the results of a single methodology pre-ordains specific interpretations due to linguistic restraints of the language itself. Mono methodological treatments of psychological phenomena are of course representative of journalistic treatments that seek to derive predictions from the use of single data languages and single methods. However, they impede understanding by their inability to demonstrate the metaphorical content of the terms they may employ. The exclusive use of between group designs in flow research thus cannot demonstrate whether such terms as intrinsic motivation, autotelic personality, etc. have any meaning outside of their linguistic context.

For example, an individual who has a headache may report a throbbing, painful sensation, or that it feels like demons are dancing in his head. However, the distinction between the realism of the subjective qualities of pain (or any experience for that matter) depends upon knowledge of differing empirical representations of pain. Thus, knowledge of the physiological correlates of headaches maps to and validates the subjective ‘qualia’ of pain, but demonstrates in turn the purely metaphorical content of ‘dancing demons’.

Understanding requires the integration of different methodologies and the data sets they generate (Lakoff, 1999). This integration simplifies resulting theories because it only accepts as real terms that have empirical meaning across methods. Thus, distinguishing between the purely metaphorical and the real, as in demonic possession or painful sensation can only be accomplished by the mutually corrective influence of different ‘levels’ of knowledge.

The singular reliance on between group designs in the study of flow is flawed because it obscures actual processes rather than informs procedures that actually reveal processes, and because it makes it difficult to separate metaphorical constructs from literal ones. The use of any solitary procedure or method to understand a phenomenon, whether it reflects a single apparatus (e.g. telescope, PET scan, Skinner box) or method (within or between group designs) necessarily imputes capabilities beyond its means. Thus a telescope alone cannot gain an understanding of the stars, which is dependent instead on its integrated use with other tools (X-ray telescopes, spectroscopes, etc.) and other methods (statistical analysis, mathematical modeling). Similarly, the flow experience can only be understood if researchers on the topic accept the pluralistic methodologies and data languages that are essential for scientific understanding.

The Need for an Integrated Theory of Flow

Any scientific theory must be ultimately judged by how well it describes the subject matter it purports to explain. It must define its terms clearly, relate them logically, and make testable predictions that are subject to falsification (Popper, 1959). In its present form, flow ‘theory’ does not provide an adequate theoretical syntax, relying instead of diffuse chains of metaphors that are not related logically. Secondly, flow theory has poor semantics. That is, it does not account for the physiological correlates of reported feelings of pleasure and absorption, the learning histories of the subjects, or the non-conscious cognitive processes that underlie conscious reports of interest, pleasure, and satisfactions. For these reasons, a satisfactory flow theory does not exist. A flow theory must explain and integrate the behavioral, cognitive, and neuro-psychological events that comprise flow experiences. By synthesizing different ‘levels’ of observations that descend from molar (subjective experience, absorption) to molecular detail (neural processes), fine grain predictions can be made regarding the latency, duration, and scalability of flow, and the underlying physiology of enhanced creativity and reported pleasure.

Behavioral Measures of Flow

Flow occurs when the demands of a task match but to not surpass the skill available to complete that task. This perceptual set, or ‘flow channel’ represents a class of information that that both elicits and is the object of attentional focus. Flow is a function of the cognitive processing of a specific perceptual set (demand/skill match) that remains constant across performance. It is independent of response topography, and can occur concurrently such disparate behaviors as chess playing, rock climbing, or writing poetry. The information that elicits flow may in turn have normative implications that vary from high to low. From self-reports of individuals, flow scales or increases as the implications of behavior increase. Thus, intense and ecstatic flow experiences are commonly reported among individuals who are absorbed in demanding tasks that have critical implications, such as performing surgery, mountain climbing, and creative behavior. In contrast, less intense or no flow experiences are reported among individuals who are engaged in absorbing but less critical tasks such as reading, video game playing etc. Besides scaling with the importance of the task, the emotional concomitants to flow occur when an individual anticipates or models future tasks that command total absorption, and subsequently to flow eliciting behavior. For example, Csikszentmihalyi noted that individuals reported flow like states as they prepared for flow producing activities like skiing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Finally, higher behavioral efficiency and creativity have been commonly attributed to the influence of the flow state (Canter, Rivers and Storrs, 1985).

Although Csikszentmihalyi maps flow experience to the independent variable of a perceptual demand/skill match, the independent behavioral measure of an absorbing or demanding activity represent a molar variable that remains invariant across long time scales (i.e. ‘a flow channel’), and has never been decomposed into underlying molecular constituents. It thus lacks theoretical coherence. That is, because the molar conception of a demand/skill match has never been decomposed to the molecular perceptual processes that represent the moment-to-moment aspects of an individual’s behavior, these aspects, since they are not explored, are not theoretically subsumed under molar entities such as attention, absorption, and demand. This has resulted in the unproven inference that the demand/skill match is near constant across performance in flow producing activities, and remains matched within short time frames during performance.

Practically however, a uniform demand/skill match is impossible on the micro-behavioral level, since there will always be unexpected variances in demand and skill that will result in a correction of behavior to match the unexpected errors between behavior and outcome. For example, typical flow producing behaviors such as creative behavior, performing surgery, and rock climbing on the micro-behavioral level represent behaviors that will require constant adjustments or corrections due to unforeseen variances in ongoing behavior or the demands or response contingencies that frame that behavior. Thus, at any moment in time, a rock climber may have to adjust his climbing stance, a surgeon may have to alter or change a surgical procedure, or a composer or artist may have to deal with a new motif or idea.

If a demand/skill match actually denotes micro-behavioral perceptual variances in demand and skill, then such variances can be theoretically mapped to not only micro-behavioral aspects of overt behavior, but also covert neural responses. If the operational construct of a demand/skill match can be demonstrated to map to micro-behavioral events for overt and covert responses, then a coherent and empirically based theory of flow can be derived. As will be shortly demonstrated, this is indeed the case.

Cognitive Measures of Flow

In addition to these behavioral indices of flow, cognitive measures of flow have focused on one primary independent variable, namely cognitive absorption or focused attention. The implicit assumption of a corollary and perhaps causal relationship between focused attention and flow follows the pattern of a stimulus-response mechanism. That is, the occurrence of the stimulus event (attention) is followed by an almost reflexive response (emotion). Nonetheless, whether or not this paradigm may be of any practical validity depends upon the status of attention as a definable stimulus event, and the degree to which specific correlations can be drawn between various levels of attention and emotional states.

The important question is whether attention as commonly defined displays the expected attributes of a stimulus event. Certainly, the many definitions that may be given to attention do not provide for a simple answer to this question. For example, Candland (1969) demonstrated that attention can represent a variety of phenomena, such as general alertness, selective focusing, flexibility in shifting focus, and capacity to sustain focused alertness. In addition, the concept of attention does not reflect a localized process, but is best viewed as a taxonomy for a multitude of processes that modulate the afferent signal from a sensory receptor along its sensory pathway (Hilgard, 1975). Supporting this perspective, the neurophysiological correlates of attention as revealed by a variety of researchers (Hernandez-Peon (1956), Spong, Haider, and Lindsley, 1965; Deutsch and Deutsch, 1963) discredit the implicit judgment that attention represents a stimulus like event. Rather, attentional processes assume the aspect of a homeostatic mechanism that allows certain streams of sensory information to be processed to the exclusion of other incoming information. That is, rather than representing a stream of information that is transmitted through certain afferent and efferent neural passageways, attention represents the process that permits such information streams to be enhanced or diminished.

Attention also denotes cognitive processes that involve the motivation that directs the selective processing of information. Paying attention as a dynamic process is dependent upon processes of selection that involve disparate nonconscious cognitive processes that occur in time (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). These processes implicate mechanisms of learning and memory that in turn bias attention towards novel and salient information (Kastner et. al, 1999) Ultimately, whether Johnny attends to a homework project is dependent upon discrimination histories, genetic tendencies (e.g. extraversion), concurrently perceived information (e.g. distractions), and emotional influences (e.g. anxiety).

Because attention at turns represents a taxonomy for a collection of processes, separately denotes individual processes, or represents obscure or inferred processes, attention as a theoretical entity is incoherent. In other words, like the concepts of emotion, motivation, and consciousness, attention represents a field of study rather than an entity that can be uniquely and precisely defined (Posner, 1984).

Because the concept of attention is ill defined or incoherent, and can be operationalized in many different ways, it cannot be employed as a predictor of the specific qualitative aspects of the dependent variable of flow, namely self reports of interest, alertness, euphoria, and increased cognitive efficiency. In other words, the general definition of attention can only predict the general effects of attention, which include a much wider scope of dependent measures, from mild alertness to relaxation. Moreover, general definitions of attention cannot be used to predict the fine grain molecular or physiological aspects of the flow experience. Thus, questions about response latency, physiological changes, response scalability etc. cannot be answered.

In spite of this, "the noun ‘attention’ lends a unitary and thing like quality to the diverse expressions of a number of different biobehavioral processes. Treating attention as a thing tempts us to use it as an explanation of behavior rather than -at best- a heading under which a set of superficially similar phenomena may be grouped." (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993) When attention is used to separate the differing experiences of individuals in and out of ‘flow’, its easy to adopt statements such as "The first individual experienced flow because she was attentive or absorbed, but the second one did not because she wasn’t as attentive." To use attention in this way is to fall prey to the nominal fallacy; i. e. to treat the name of the phenomenon as if it were an explanation. Moreover, the nominal fallacy encourages circular reasoning. To wit- Question: Why did the first individual experience flow? Answer, because she was attending. Question: How do you know that the student was attending? Answer: because she was experiencing flow. When misused in this way, "attention" deludes us into believing we have explained behavior when we have merely classified it (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993).

The equivalence of attention with its general characteristics does not determine what aspect of attention is most highly correlated with the effects of flow as a unique subjective experience and as a distinctive physiological event. This is best illustrated from a consideration of the subjective and physiological correlates to focused attention or absorption that defines a related experience to flow called meditation. Conditions that elicit focused attention as well as its unique experiential characteristics are generally shared by and may be subsumed under the class of ‘meditative’ experiences that have been studied far more exhaustively. Pleasant emotional experiences that are characteristic of meditation have long been associated with strict attentiveness to specific stimuli or stimulus classes and seen as a byproduct of that attentiveness (Goleman, 1976). Like flow, meditation has been associated with unique physiological and experiential states (Goleman, 1976, Brown, 1977; Deikman, 1963), but unlike flow, the neurophysiological and somatic correlates to meditation have been exhaustively studied (Fenwick 1977;Michaels, 1976; Wagstaff 1981; Pagano and Warrenburg 1983; Holmes 1984, 1988); and have been found to represent no unique neurophysiological or somatic state, but are merely relaxation. The fact that meditative experiences represent no unique physiological state but are merely relaxation invalidates the claim that focused attention can account for the euphoric aspect of flow or account for claims of increased cognitive efficiency. But as has been noted, there are many different varieties of attention.

A different aspect of attention is reflected by the observation that flow follows the ongoing perception of a near perfect match between the demands of the situation and the skills of the individual. Artists, surgeons, musicians, rock climbers etc. commonly report states of pleasure, satisfaction, heightened interest, and often euphoria when the demands of the task require the rapid consideration and choice between many cognitive precepts or events. Thus a mountain climber, surgeon, or poet would have to rapidly choose between many variants of each successive behavior or cognitive precept, each of which if chosen wrong could result in a bad fall, a dead patient, or the loss of inspiration. If the demands of the task exceed the skills available, anxiety occurs and flow disappears. On the other hand, if one’s skill exceed the demands of the task, flow also disappears and replaced with either no emotion or boredom.

The questions that these observations pose are several. Can rapid attentional set shifting between a cascade of salient cognitive precept account for flow? As importantly, why would flow disappear in overly demanding situations and be replaced by anxiety, and why would flow disappear as well in situations where an individual is not required to rapidly assess all aspects of a situation? To answer these questions, neuro-psychological evidence can be assembled that suggests an answer.

Neuro-psychological Measures of Flow

Like all behavioral responses, flow is instantiated by neural processes. But what candidate processes exist that can explain flow? A common suggestion is that flow reflects a reduction in brain metabolism, as represented by indices of cortical activity, such as the EEG (Goleman, 1995). In actuality, the cerebral cortex is enervated, and no manner of direct stimulation, electrical, physical or otherwise results in sensations that would otherwise be reported as pleasurable or painful. On the other hand, direct stimulation of brain organelles such as the thalamus, amygdala, etc. commonly evokes sensations of pleasure or pain. The essence of emotion, if referred to the sensations that are at the core of feeling, must engage the activity of mid brain structures as mediated by neuro-chemical processes. Indeed, the cerebral cortex is largely the recipient of emotional influences rather than the generator of (i.e. sensory) aspects of various emotional states (Panksepp, 1998). The facts of experience, as represented by the information we constantly perceive both consciously and non-consciously continually integrate higher (neo-cortical) and lower (midbrain) neural processes. In a review of recent findings in neuro-psychology Ashby, Isen, and Turkel (1999) concluded that rapid attentional set shifting between salient cognitive precepts does indeed correlate with feelings of elation and satisfaction and that the neurochemical processes that enable this shifting also increase cognitive efficiency and creativity. In a similar vein, the behavioristic psychologists John Donahoe and David Palmer (1993) identified cognitive set shifting with dopamine release, and in turn with the concept of reinforcement. Moreover, changes in dopamine have been mapped to environmental contingencies (Barrett and Hoffman, 1991) and have been proposed as a cellular analogue of operant conditioning (Stein, Xue, and Belluzzi, 1993). The cognitive set shifting inherent in broad perspectives on problem solving has also been independently noted to correspond with more effective problem solving and a higher likelihood of persisting at the behavior that is characterized by those perspectives (Dewitte and Verguts, 1999).

On the neuro-psychological level of description, the selection of a particular environmental behavior relation or cognitive precept can be defined as reinforcement, which on the neural level causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to be liberated in synaptic clefts between coactive pre- and post synaptic neurons (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). The functional role of dopamine stabilizes active neural representations in the prefrontal cortex (i.e., attention), and thereby protects goal related delay activity against interfering stimuli, (Durstewitz et al. 1999). Dopamine labels stimuli with appetitive value, and may provide advance reward information before behavior occurs (Schultz, 1999). Dopamine also mediates the cognitive effects of pleasant feelings that may be denoted by self reports of pleasure, happiness, or satisfaction (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999). In particular, mesolimbic dopamine (DA) activity has been conceptualized as a reward signal that marks and is scaled to the importance or salience of perceptual events (Horvitz, Stewart, and Jacobs 1997), and promotes the effective processing of afferent signals simultaneously arriving at the midbrain.

Generally, the role of dopamine is to signify salient events, and has a non-conscious role in determining the value or valence of responses that are not otherwise characterized consciously as pleasurable. However, if dopamine release is high and has a rapid onset, then a conscious state of pleasure or ‘high’ is generally reported. For example, the rate at which dopamine receptors are blocked in cocaine users as well as the extent of the blockage determines whether an individual experiences a cocaine high (Volkow, Fowler, and Wang 1999). Thus, the high and rapid build up of dopamine due to cocaine use results in a distinctively pleasurable experience. Similarly, a cascade of multiple salient perceptual events would accentuate and sustain DA activity by facilitating the switching among alternative cognitive perspectives, and thus enhance decision making and creative thinking (Ashby, Isen, and Turken, 1999). This neuro-chemical activity would not only facilitate the rapid and efficient focusing of the mind on a wide range of images, but would also be more likely interpreted as highly pleasurable if dopamine release increases due to a higher perceived importance of those events. Preliminary confirmation of this has been provided by separate neuro-imaging studies that demonstrated the increased release of dopamine during activities (a video game) that required sustained shifting of a cognitive set (Koepp, 1998), and also for individuals who rapidly shift focus to high anticipated behavioral outcomes such as in gambling (Breiter, Aharon, et al. 2001). In the latter study, dopamine release scaled in tandem with the perceived increase in the payoff of gambling behaviors and with self-reports of euphoria or satisfaction. Finally, in addition to motivational factors, the type or level of cognitive processing has also been correlated with the elevated and sustained increase in dopamine. Higher and more sustained levels of dopamine have been observed during working memory tasks in comparison to simple rote tasks such as reading (Fried et al. 2001). This finding coheres with the common association of flow experiences with types of cognitive processing (artistic or creative thinking) as well as cognitive processing (mountain climbing) that is characterized by a high motivational component.

Dopamine occurs as a ‘teaching signal’ that directs behavior to salient precepts that have a positive outcome (Schultz, 1998). Dopamine neurons are activated by rewarding events that are better than predicted (i.e. represent positive prediction error); remain uninfluenced by events that are as good as predicted, are depressed by events that are worse than predicted (Schultz, 1998; Berns, 2001), and become more activated as the importance of those stimuli increase (Breiter, Aharon, et al. 2001). Thus, if response salience stays high, but results in negative outcomes, then the intracellular interactions that involve dopamine are disrupted, and result in anxiety, anger or other bad feelings (Blum et al. 1996). This explains why individuals who are overtasked (a mismatch of demand over skill) do not report euphoric flow states, but rather negative emotions such as anxiety. Similarly, if response salience is low due to undertasked behavior (a mismatch of skill over demand), then the same intracellular interactions are less accentuated, and are do not result in conscious feelings of euphoria or pleasure.

Flow and Learning

Finally, the fact that dopamine release is signaled by the salience of conditioned as well as unconditioned stimuli implicates the learning histories of individuals, or in other words, the manner whereby prior experience may influence behavior. For example, the greater number of stimuli that are associated with a response, the more likely that any given environment will contain some of those stimuli, and hence the response will reoccur and/or persist. This ‘over-expectation’ effect, or behavioral momentum (Nevin, 1992) would assign a discriminative function to otherwise neutral stimuli that have been associated with the response. Thus, the persistence of dopamine release long after its proximal causes have ceased may be attributed to remaining in the original environmental setting (office, laboratory) of that response. Similarly, the same discriminative function may occur due to the perception of perceptual events that historically foreshadow or act as precursors of imminent future events that have been historically associated with heightened dopamine release. This ‘priming’ response (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993) would explain why individuals who in preparing to or are anticipating to engage in flow producing tasks (e.g. mountain climbers readying equipment) report the same subjective experience of flow prior to actually engaging in tasks that actually produce the flow experience. It must be remarked that priming is functionally equivalent to principles of classical conditioning that demonstrate how unconditioned responses (e.g. the salivary reflex) can be elicited by events (e.g. the ringing of a dinner bell) that act as precursors to the primary elicitors of behavior (e.g. food). Similarly, behavioral momentum has a counterpart in the concept of response extinction, wherein a response decreases faster or more slowly depending upon the historical significance of contextual events. The fact that dopamine release has response aspects that are quite in keeping with a Pavlovian unconditioned reflex and the procedures of classical conditioning illustrates how the processes that underlie flow may be mapped to differing (although not contradictory) data languages in learning theory.

However, this analysis becomes a bit more complicated when situations that elicit the sustained release of dopamine are considered. The positive affect caused by unexpected rewards has been attributed to the release of the neuromodulator dopamine, yet dopamine release continues long after dopamine cells have stopped firing (Ashby, Isen, and Turken, 1999). Although dopamine release has been noted to occur up to thirty minutes after the stimulation of dopaminergic systems, it remains unclear how behavioral momentum may facilitate or inhibit the degree and persistence of the release of dopamine over time.

Miscelleneous Measures for Flow

Flow has been linked to reported states of euphoria or pleasure that occur during and after states of prolonged exertion (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). This euphoric state, or ‘runners high’, is generally attributed to the release of endogenous opiod-peptides, or endorphins, that are the body’s natural way of toning down specific pain responses at different levels. As a result of physical stress, endorphin release produces euphoria, respiratory depression, reduced gastrointestinal motility, and analgesia (Rang, 1995). However, the mapping of euphoric states to physical stressors rather than perceptual events (demand/skill match) cannot account for any of the well established behavioral and cognitive correlates to the flow response. Also, endorphins are biochemically dissimilar to dopamine, which is a monoamine and not a polypeptide (opiod). Thus there is no reason to assume that the same phenomenological response (flow) would correspond with such differing physiological correlates. Moreover, since endorphin and dopamine release is elicited by entirely different classes of environmental factors, the relationship between flow and a runner’s high is linked only by arbitrarily equated self reports of pleasure.

The Status of Flow as Theory

In spite of the widespread representation of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow as ‘theory’, his description of flow does not represent an adequate theory because the elements of flow simply do not fit the definition of a scientific theory. Flow theory is rife with major difficulties in its syntax and semantics. Not only are the independent measures of flow poorly defined and integrated, but the dependent measures of flow rely on self reports that imply a direct connection between a uniform private event (a flow state) and a verbal response (I feel happy, satisfied, flowing) that is unreliable. The uncritical acceptance of this one to one correspondence between a report of flow and an inner flow state results in the awkward multi-specification of a unitary flow state to behaviors that embody disparate and even incompatible physiological states. Thus, the equation of the flow state with experiences that clearly entail differing states of relaxation, high alertness, cognitive interest, or neural activation broadens flow to include just about any emotional state that is in some way pleasurable, and thus expands the concept of flow into near meaninglessness. The concept of flow also entails a threat to the nature and objectivity of an empirical analysis of behavior because flow is associated with ‘existence propositions’ that assign surplus meaning over and above observed correlations (Zuriff, 1985). Like similar meaningless concepts as phlogiston and ether that marked the respective agents of combustion and the transmission of light, flow simply adds a surplus meaning that comprehensive empirical observations do not require.

A Bio-behavioristic theory of flow

A true theory of flow must have theoretical coherence and integrate micro and molar aspects of behavior, and thus must relate real empirical events to the common experiential reports of interest, euphoria, and increased cognitive efficiency that combined represent the ‘holistic’ or molar conceptualization of flow. Unfortunately, current conceptions of flow are independent of physiology, and thus can be equated with any physiology. Thus we come to the absurd conclusion that a unitary flow state can be instantiated by very differing processes. The characteristic aspects of flow can in total be mapped only to specific neural processes that involve the dopaminergic systems that are critical to learning, reward, and emotion. To wit, flow does not represent a separate or distinctive mental or physiological state, but is rather the subjective or felt aspect of a consistent and high level of neural activation or arousal elicited by the perception of a high, positive, and sustained prediction error during a task performance. In addition, self-reports of flow like states in circumstances that precede and follow the perceptual events that elicit flow demonstrate how prior learning, and by implication processes of memory can modulate the neurological processes that underlie self-reports of arousal.

A bio-behavioristic theory of flow explains the latency, duration, and intensity of flow, as well as flow’s effect on cognitive efficiency and creativity. In addition, the theory is parsimonious, testable, and integrates the seemingly independent subject matters of phenomenology, learning theory, and cognitive neuro-psychology. Most importantly, a bio-behavioral theory of flow demonstrates that the key and perhaps defining element of the flow experience cannot be understood through an appeal to phenomenological, cognitive, neurological, or behavioral variables alone, but only through an integration of the respective metaphors that are engaged by these explanatory schemes. Ironically, the systematic integration of these different explanations present a far simpler representation of the flow experience, since plural metaphorical and methodological perspectives provide a multivariate perspective on the phenomenon, and correct for conclusions that are skewed by the language itself (Lakoff, 1999).

It must be stressed that a commitment to pluralistic methods is not reductionism, since it does not privilege any one method as the way to understand flow. Indeed, subjective reports and neurological measures both inform and correct each other, much as subjective reports inform us that individuals take pleasure and suffer, but nonetheless reflect at root a real biological substrate. Thus flow is more than simply self-reports, neurological indices, or other behavioral measures, it is all of these things, and can not be understood otherwise.


Theoretical Implications of a bio-behavioristic theory of flow

A bio-behavioristic explanation of flow underscores much broader issues that radically alter the basic ways we think of motivation. Primarily, the decision making process behind such behaviors as disparate as creative thinking, problem solving, or walking to the store are all dependent upon and influenced by somatic or neural activation variables that are mediated by abstract environmental contingencies. In other words, behavior is inherently embodied, and how we feel while performing an action is modulated by the contingency between action and outcome, and that feeling not only alters how we perform and judge that action, but is altered by the results of that action itself. In practical terms, we cannot gauge the effectiveness of a teaching style, a leisure or work activity, or even the desirability of moral acts unless we can conceive of the concurrent presence and influence of the abstract environment contingencies that modulate cognitive shifting and its neurological and somatic concomitants. Thus, motivation is not just a function of a rational economic calculus of static motivating events that have separate and unchanging value, but is crucially dependent upon a non-conscious mapping of psychological space. This mapping can only be accomplished using a simple contingency-based data language that is the lingua franca of contemporary behaviorism.

Finally, separate idiosyncratic mind states such as flow, intrinsic motivation, autotelic personality etc. are ultimately empty concepts, since they cannot account for the abstract environmental contingencies and somatic and neuro-chemical processes that activate behavior. In other words, they have poor semantics, since they are only partially or obscurely rooted in the empirical facts of behavior.

Practical Implications of a bio-behavioristic theory of flow

The flow experience does not represent a separate or distinct neuro-psychological event. Rather, flow represents a neurological event that differs in degree rather than type from other similar events, and is no more distinctive than high anxiety is from low anxiety, or running from walking. Moreover, flow is subject to the same principles of learning that govern involuntary and voluntary behaviors. That is, the processes that underlie flow display the same lawfulness that governs responses as disparate as salivation, emotion, walking, or talking.

The practical implications of a bio-behavioristic explanation for flow greatly refine Csikszentmihalyi’s own prescriptions for the replication of flow in everyday life, and make those prescriptions much clearer by discarding spurious mental processes such as intrinsic motivation, autotelic personality, and the like. For example, short bursts of absorbing activity (e.g. writing sonnets, creating art) that are paced at separate intervals during the day will elicit a high level of neural arousal will have enough ‘momentum’ to span those intervals, and create a state of pleasurable alertness that can be extended all day.

Secondly, because flow is a scalable response, lower levels of activation are still desirable, even if they may not produce self-reports of elation or satisfaction. School curricula that are designed to cultivate a child’s shifting focus on diverse aspects of a subject matter that may be inherent in or denoted by that subject matter will arouse his attention, and thus seem to be ‘intrinsically reinforcing’. Third, by stressing the importance of activating neural processes in environments that require exacting levels of performance (e.g. education, work), learning technologies can be readapted to more accurately fit the facts of behavior, and with subsequent increases in their effectiveness as well as comprehensibility.


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