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Saturday, July 02, 2005

the flow experience: the summa cum lousy of bad psycholgoy

The Flow Experience: The Summa Cum Lousy of Bad Psychology

What’s a Flow Experience?

Long ago, during the disco epoch (1970’s) the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi discovered that folks who perform tasks that involve a perceived matching of task to skill report a feeling of ecstasy, tranquility, pleasure, and timelessness. Rock climbers, artists, musicians, and surgeons were only some of the people who reported a sense of control, discovery, and general ‘flowing’ as they engaged in their demanding tasks. To Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, or Dr. C., this ‘flow state’ represented not only an optimal experience, but represented a holistic experience that represented an "undreamed of" state of consciousness.

This was heady stuff, so Dr. C. proceeded to interview thousands and thousands of other people to discover more about their optimal experiences. Lo and behold, he discovered that they too reported similar flowing states when they engaged in similar situations that involved a matching of skill and demand. Dr. C. figured that self-reports described the flow experience well enough. Future researchers evidently agreed as they dutifully performed their own surveys of individuals in and out of flow, and constructed imposing statistical matrices that correlated skills and challenges and interactivity and time distortion and playfulness etc. to the fifth digit. This resulted in revelatory discoveries that impressed all, and as this author fervently hopes, will soon be entered into the archives of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For example, Novak and Hoffman (See references in the reverent flow article, which also appears on their web site under research) found, among hundreds of other important correlations, that challenge has a .390 relationship to positive affect, that time distortion has a .252 relationship to arousal, and that focus has a whopping .520 relationship to playfulness! The authors proceeded to provide a theoretical structural equation for flow linking sixteen theoretical constructs, such as arousal, challenge, time distortion, importance, and positive affect. The model shows path coefficients for indicated regressions among 13 latent factors, and coefficients for the regression of 54 measured variables onto 13 latent factors. Oddly, the whole model strangely resembles a satellite view of the rail yard at the Chicago Board of Trade.

Of course, for those who are statistically challenged, Dr. C. has written several well-received books on the flow experience. It is remarkable that the esteemed author could crank out 400+ page books on flow and only repeat himself several dozen times or so. The mind truly boggles as such an accomplishment, which overwhelms Dr. Mezmer’s own contribution, as all I have to offer is a pamphlet.

Why the Flow Experience?
The flow experience is special because nowhere does so much bad psychology come together to make a rather simple observation so impossibly complex and gaseously profound. Like a buffet meal, the flow experience has something for anyone’s psychic palate, and includes consciousness raising and ordering, holistic experiences, psychic energy, and self-growth, not to mention that it feels good too! Indeed, it offers every kind of psychic goodness except afterlife experiences and a good roll in the hay. What these terms don’t do is describe what really comprises a flow channel and the flow experience that fills it.

Actually, the flow experience represents a most significant observation, once you cut away the theoretical and statistical sludge that has encrusted it. The broadly reported observation that a pleasurable emotional state is elicited by the performance of a very demanding task is not only counterintuitive, but may also suggest new procedures for the relief of stress, and confirms more scientific interpretations of emotion that have been overshadowed by the eccentricities and inexactitude of self reports. In other words, the flow experience demonstrates that a little science, like a little learning, can go a long way to make seemingly complex phenomena intuitively simple. Just as the complex mathematical mechanics of a Kepler and Newton can be reduced to the simple notion of planets following elliptical paths around the sun, so to can more complex scientific reasoning distill the flow experience to events that would be transparently obvious to a six year old.

How should the flow experience be analyzed?

The first step in the analysis of the flow experience is to recognize that self reports represent individual interpretations of the experience, and not accurate descriptions of the experience itself. That is, they are more likely artifacts of language rather than comprise accurate descriptors of some specialized process occurring in one’s brain, or accurately describe a bodily event or a mental perception. To illustrate, as any reader of restaurant or art reviews can attest, the lavish application of metaphor and hyperbole can make a simple dining or artistic experience into an event that can surpass our wildest delusions. Consider the interpretations that can occur when if one bites into a cracker. If the experience was interpreted as an apotheosis of crunchy whole grain goodness, a revelatory concordance of sesame and bran, exploding in a transcendent epiphany of flavor, this loopy definition is just what we would come to expect from a pompous restaurant critic. We would not of course buy into this silliness, or for a minute believe that munching a cracker represents some new state of consciousness, optimal experience, or sensory pleasure. We also certainly wouldn’t expect that statistical correlations between self reports of experienced crunchiness, transcendence, and exploding flavors would reveal anything more than an apt demonstration of how the linkage of half defined concepts, like the multiplication of a long series of fractions, merely results in a long day’s computation to an end product of next to nothing.

The second step in flow analysis is to simply detail the information that is conveyed by the situations that elicit flow, and how that information differs from all other experiences which don’t cause flow. Since information is an objective rather than subjective datum, there is little room for the interpretive license that can come up with 32 different flavors of consciousness, transcendence, and the like. This immediately puts a halt to the Babel of interpretations that needlessly complexify flow, but also sadly means that yours truly cannot write a 400 page book on the phenomenon.

A third step in the analysis of flow is to determine the objective physiological correlate to flow. A universally reported aspect of flow is that it is an emotional experience. So what is this experience: brain waves, relaxation, hormonal changes? If a primary aspect of flow is, say, relaxation, how does relaxation correlate in time with information mediated by perceived changes in demand and skill? Finally, a fourth step is to make a theoretical inference and to test this deduction through the procedures that can prove it. For example, if relaxation in flow is dependent upon the perception of certain patterns of information, then simply duplicate those patterns and see if relaxation will reliably follow.

Through a simple process of deduction, and an insistence upon clearly defining one’s terms, I will demonstrate that flow is an unremarkable experience that is caused by wholly unremarkable events. Secondly, I will show that it suggests wholly remarkable procedures for the elicitation and control of relaxation that are not suggested by common sense. Third, if these procedures don’t work, then I, Dr. Mezmer, will have to concede that I too am a bad psychologist, and will apologize to all concerned, and erase this web site from existence.

What circumstances elicit a flow experience?

The flow experience occurs when one perceives an even matching of high demand and skill while performing some task. We will define demand as the conditions for a performance, and represents the required form and timeliness of a performance, lest a goal state contingent upon that performance be compromised, delayed, or lost. A second component of demand is the importance of the task outcome. The higher the importance of the task outcome and the tighter the conditions for that performance, the higher will be the demand for performance. For example, preparing an income tax return is most highly demanded on April 14, since there is little or no time to spare, and because of the financial penalties that will be exacted if the return is sent in a day later. If a filing extension was easily granted and/or the penalties for a later return were mild or nonexistent, then the demand to do your income tax would be small. Secondly, we will define skill as a set of cognitive or physical behaviors that are available to an individual and that when chosen will achieve that goal state. When high demand and skill match during a performance, an individual cannot diverge from those behaviors within his skill set, lest the probability that his goal be lost markedly increase. In other words, he can’t afford to spend any time doing or thinking about anything else, lest his goal be lost. In addition, as the goal become more important, the skill requirements become greater, and the fine grain details of performance require more attention. That is, the individual will have to pay attention to finer and finer aspects of his performance, since any inattention to even tiny details can spell the difference between life and death.

Its important to remember that it is high demand, not just any demand, that correlates with a flow response. These ground rules for flow rule out behaviors like simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your tummy, which for many of us represents a challenge that matches of our skills, yet as a task is of little importance. And it also rules out situations when demand is moderate, as when we are involved with playing a Nintendo game, reading a good book, or surfing the Internet. It’s safe to say that the common experiences of playing a video game, Internet surfing, etc. would cause us to lose track of time, self-consciousness, or at least our awareness that we have much better things to do with our time, like work. But such experiences are hardly evocative of the subjective feelings of ecstasy, pleasure, or tranquility that are commonly reported ingredients of the flow response. If we assumed that such reports are not the results of overheated imaginations, then we must search for the empirical or factual event that can make ordinary tasks into a blissful experience. As we shall see next, that ingredient is rather obvious, and occurs because it is in a very real sense nothing more than a psychological bookmark.

So what really is a Flow Experience?

We start off with a simple illustration, and proceed to just the facts. Consider a rock climber. Rock climbers pretty uniformly report flow, and its fun to illustrate them because one would think that ecstasy would be the last emotional experience to attend the experience of clinging on the edge of a cliff by one’s fingernails. Rock climbers long for the transcendent experience of spending whole weekends dangling from the faces of sheer cliffs, with only a loose pebble away from an even better experience than flow, namely their impending afterlife experience after they are squashed on the rocks below. Rock climbers often choose challenging rock faces to climb that match the limit of their capabilities, and report that they are not only extremely focused on their climb, but also experience some very profound positive emotional experiences, or flow. And largely because of flow, they return again and again to their near fatal attraction, like bugs bouncing into light bulb.

So what’s going on here? One obvious fact is that during his climb a rock climber is going to be extremely alert, and will be acutely sensitive to all of the details, large and small, that will ensure a successful climb. But these details involve no passive attention to some dull rock face, but involve an active consideration of all of the available options and their future ramifications. For example, a climber must actively and rapidly consider what climbing moves will be optimal, and also their future implications. Will a particular grip be sufficient to move up an additional foot or so, and when you’re there, what will you do to get over the next imposing ledge, crevice, etc? Since the number of climbing moves are innumerable, and their consequences imminent and vast, the climber must process a great deal of information in a short period of time. So it is no wonder that the climber will lose track of time and self-consciousness as he consciously and unconsciously processes the wealth of information necessary to make a successful climb.

So far, the behavior of the rock climber is unremarkable, yet it is difficult to conceive that attention, in and of itself, contains the stuff of ecstasy. So Dr. C. takes an easier option. Focused attention instead acts as some metaphorical if not real portal to ecstatic states. For Dr. C.’s decidedly literary frame of mind, this is a particularly swell conclusion, since attention can open up a veritable fantasy land of metaphorical mind states (e.g. order in consciousness, growth in self) that can explain flow, and all without the need to ground them to anything remotely resembling actual neural processes. However, if the neural basis of attention contains in itself processes that may be subjectively reported as pleasurable, Dr. C.’s house of metaphorical cards collapses, since attention will be demonstrated as not the antecedent for flow, but flow itself. Ultimately, the hedonic or pleasurable aspect of attentive states falls within a more general and important subject matter that encompasses those pleasurable and painful somatic and neural states that nonconsciously influence behavior. That subject matter is called emotion.

Flow and Emotion

Flow is an emotional experience, and traditionally, the physiological as well as cognitive components of emotion are well investigated and objectively detailed. We know for example that anxiety can not only be described by self reports of discomfort, tension, apprehension, etc. but also by its physiological correlates of muscular tension, biochemical changes (e.g. an adrenaline rush), cardiovascular changes, etc. However, in the entire journalistic literature of flow, which is a scant forty or fifty articles, no one has ever undertaken an objective measurement of the physiological correlates to flow. This is all the more amazing when one thinks why it didn’t occur to Dr. C. to take the time before his interview of 5000 people to strap just one of them to a simple EEG, EKG, EMG, GSR, or other device to measure brain, cardiac, or muscular activity while they engaged in behaviors which created flow experiences.

To arrive at this answer, we have to consider a first cousin to the flow experience that also involves highly attentive states, and like flow has been historically validated by dreamy eyed self reports of transcendence, timelessness, and consciousness raising. This experience is called meditation, and meditation in all of its variants from transcendental relaxation and yoga to the relaxation response has been the subject of thousands of studies that have investigated every conceivable physiological correlate, from brain waves to muscle twitches. So what have these studies revealed about the meditative experience? That it is muscle relaxation and nothing more. In several comprehensive reviews of hundreds of studies which investigated the biochemical and autonomic correlates to meditation (see flow: a reverent interpretation), meditative experiences were demonstrated to merely be the physiological equivalent to a relaxed state. The voluminous self reports that implied that meditation elicited some special mental state simply demonstrated how the identification of even simple bodily responses can be smothered by the misuse of language.

Armed with this important fact, we will make the wild conjecture that a missing ingredient that makes flow experiences transcendent is also nothing more than relaxation. However, this assumption is not that simple. It is an easy conclusion that since meditation occurs in relatively quiet and undemanding environments, relaxation follows as inevitably as when we are lying on a couch. However, flow experiences occur in situations that are anything but quiet and undemanding. Indeed, climbing a steep precipice would seem to be the opposite of a relaxing experience, and there is no obvious justification for relaxation occurring in such a situation.

Because the relaxation that occurs in flow cannot be attributed to a mere aftereffect of resting, the real mystery of flow becomes why relaxation would be elicited by the perception of a matching of demand and skill. Flow situations demand a lot of information processing, as an individual must immediately consider a host of alternatives. A common presumption is that the brain, marvelous computational device that it is, is quite up to the task. Any concurrent emotional response can only interfere with thinking, and certainly can never enhance it. Indeed, if the emotional component could be somehow detached, we would become computational dynamos like the denizens of the planet Vulcan, and all our behavior would be rational and sensible.

The common conception that emotions are mere appendages to thought, and interfere or distort the powers of reason, makes it more difficult to justify the presence of an emotional component in flow. However, this bedrock assumption has recently been challenged. Emotions, it now seems, are absolutely critical for rational thought, and occur and are sustained because they help us think rationally. Indeed, and our behavior would often be irrational without them.

The Strange Case of Phineas Gage

In the 1840’s a railroad worker by the name of Phineas Gage suffered a particularly gruesome industrial accident. An explosion sent an iron pipe hurtling through his head, and in the process removing part of his brain. Miraculously, he not only survived his ordeal, but retained in full his sensory capabilities and his ability to calculate and reason. Although he seemed to have fully recovered from his injury, emotionally, he was not the same man. His character turned sociopathic, and his behavior became inconsiderate, reckless, and distinctly unreasonable. It seems that his accident severed the cortical areas that governed the processing of emotional memory. That is, his emotional detachment was due to a literal cerebral detachment. In some inexplicable way, his incapacity to express emotion degraded his ability to act reasonably.

To understand Gage’s behavior, we must understand how emotional memories and the display of emotion influence behavior. Emotional memories are stored and processed in different physical areas of the brain, and if these areas are impaired by disease or injury, their distinctive contribution to rational thought can be easily ascertained. The neuro-psychologist Antonio Damasio studied this phenomenon in detail, and in his book, "Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain", demonstrated that the physical or somatic component of emotion, whether it be muscular tension or an upset stomach, acts as a ‘somatic marker’ to provide a short cut to effective decision making. A somatic marker is particularly useful in situations where one does not have the ability to sequentially examine all of the possibilities generated by experience and reason. In other words, emotions act as gut feelings to speed decision-making, and occur because they allow one to adapt more readily to complex and difficult situations. The somatic and visceral responses that occur in emotions indirectly moderate behavior by attaching value to the cognitive and physical responses they parallel. That is, if one feels good while engaging in a task that requires a high degree of conscious deliberation, he will be less likely to be diverted by other mental or physical distractions.

The Flow Experience: The Somatic Marker of Relaxation

If the physical or somatic aspect of emotion occurs because it acts to practically attenuate or shorten the reasoning process, then the emotional component of flow theoretically must perform the same adaptive function. Let us consider again our rock climber. The matching of demand and skill sets the occasion for the processing of a vast number of cognitive precepts that represent the climbing moves from which he must choose, to the future consequences of those moves. The fact that even small diversions from this task can lead to disastrous consequences means that he must sweat all of the details, and not be diverted from irrelevant ones. He will thus be extraordinarily alert, and will be sensitive to even subtle variations in his environment. If relaxation occurs during his climb, that positive emotion will be associated with thinking about climbing moves, and will reduce even further the climber’s likelihood of taking even a brief time out from his task, or consider climbing strategies that are less optimal. Flow situations are characterized by situations that present an enormous number of possibilities that an individual must quickly sort out. The sheer number of possibilities may mean that he may not have time to actively consider all of them, and will need some automatic biasing mechanism to make decisions without deliberation. If profound relaxation occurs during the consideration of the most important of these possibilities, then it will serve as just that sort of mechanism, and will increase the individual’s level of performance.

The Flow Experience: The Somatic Marker of Dopamine

Finally, it must be noted that the high level of alertness that parallels the conscious and nonconscious processing of a multiple information streams can be highly rewarding in itself. This alert state may be subjectively interpreted as elation, and as Damasio noted, "permits the rapid generation of multiple images such that the associative process is richer and associations are made under to a larger variety of cues available in the images under scrutiny." However, Damasio did not discuss the physiological basis of this feeling of elation, or note the great significance it would soon have in accounting not only for flow experiences, but also for the concept of reward or reinforcement itself.

Contemporaneous with Damasio’s book, the psychologists John Donahoe and David Palmer in 1993 published a text on learning entitled "Learning and Complex Behavior". Their definition of learning was highly ‘selectionist’. That is, learning is accomplished when we consciously and nonconsciously select environment-behavior relationships to process. Of course, since there are an infinite number of relationships or patterns that can be derived from the world, and since we have the conscious resources to consciously choose but a fraction of them, there must be some other way that the brain can accomplish this. Their solution, derived from contemporary research in neuroscience, is that salient events are selected through the modulation of the neurotransmitter that is released that allows those events to be effectively processed. In particular, the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine acts like a somatic marker to mark the value of perceptual events and permits the effective processing of those events through its stimulation of neuro-cellular processes. Phenomenologically (i.e., subjectively), it also feels good. Thus it can be hypothesized that attentive alertness is a function of the importance and number of salient environment-behavior relationships that are processed in time. In addition, as the increase in the release of dopamine scales with attentiveness, the pleasure that is reported will also scale with the level of dopamine that is released.

So this is what flow is: a high state of attention, the conscious and unconscious processing of a massive amount of information relating to the accomplishment of a task, and the often profound state of relaxation and pleasurable alertness that occurs to further fix an individual to the task at hand and otherwise optimize cognitive efficiency. In particular, relaxation and alertness act to indirectly operate on the environment but will occur only in situations where the success of the behavior will be most important. Furthermore, the greater the demand, the more profound will alertness and relaxation become. This is not so odd a conclusion as one would think, since negative emotions also become more intense as demand increases. It is thus easy to see how the combination of a somatic state of relaxation and the alert state accompanying optimal mental activity may be interpreted as a different state of consciousness. The non-conscious processes that occur to optimize cognitive performance feel very, very good, but are also unfortunately very, very rare. Unlike anxiety, which if far more common than pleasurable flow states, the rareness of the flow experience merits causes that are just as rarefied. Unfortunately, those causes have a substance that is just as rarefied. And it is to the implications of these causes that we will now turn.


The demonstration that flow is little more than relaxation and alertness is a rather underwhelming conclusion, since it doesn’t have the celestial resonance of a holistic, ecstatic, or elevated level of consciousness. Nonetheless, we are still left with the theoretical debris of numerous intermediary mental states that have a sort of phony new age charm, and a face validity that is often put to mischievous use in many other bad psychological theories. Like phlogiston and ether, the introduction of special intervening mental events that somehow give flow its distinctiveness serves no real purpose, since they do not permit one to any better predict the circumstances, content, and duration of flow. These insidious intermediary mental states act like theoretical bridges or constructs that tie together a real event (the unconscious interpretation of a demand/skill match) with a real outcome (a physiological response). But like so much inert ballast, they merely act as a vaporous filler that makes a theory seem profound, when in fact they mean little or nothing at all. Nonetheless, unless they are killed off outright, they will keep rising up, Dracula like, to suck the good sense out of psychologists everywhere. To this end, we offer with fair warning a list of:

The Seven Deadly Constructs

  1. Attention
  2. According to Dr. C., attention is psychic energy, which in its own rather hydraulic way, bounds about while hopefully reinforcing a sense of self. The self of course returns the favor by directing psychic energy. This psychic energy, when its not too wrapped up in itself, and is not too fluid and erratic, can be used to really get us into the flow. This paraphrase of actual terminology that Dr. C. has utilized in his description of flow can set the mind spinning, or as he would call it, get all that psychic energy churning. Of course, if attention is a sort of psychic energy, we would be better poised to use its awesome powers if we could somehow measure it, thus providing a sort of amperes into the soul. When not waxing in Jungian gibberish, the good doctor has characterized a major element of flow as the centering of attention on a limited stimulus field. The problem though is that he does not define what a stimulus field is. Literally, a stimulus field is pretty limited, since all it consists of are the gross sensory or stimulus aspects of an event, such as the face of a cliff to a rock climber. The gross sensory aspects of flow producing events tend to have a repetitive sameness about them, yet whether they represented surgery, music composition, etc., they would no more likely maintain sustained alertness than if we were obliged to stare at a door knob all day. But stimuli are like Lego blocks, and the mind can make from them mental girders and beams, and from these construct houses, cities, and castles in the sky. Indeed, it is this perceptual as compared to stimulus field that comprises the strict attention of an individual in flow. And paradoxically, in flow the perceptual field increases in complexity as the stimulus field decreases. That is, a person performing a demanding task to the limit of his capabilities must concentrate on a limited number of stimuli, but must actively account for many of the innumerable permutations of those stimuli. Thus the stimulus focus is narrow, but the perceptual focus is wide.

    As an example, turning again to our rock climber, as his climb becomes more difficult, he must now pay attention to all of the subtle details that comprise a successful climb, and actively consider the full range of consequences of his smallest actions. If he was on the other hand secured to a tether, he could safely take pause to think about other things besides climbing, as all of the subtle variations that guarantee a successful climb would have receded from conscious awareness.

    By expanding our definition of attention to encompass the perceptual as well as stimulus events that are brought to conscious awareness, the definition of attention is subsumed under information processing terminology. Indeed, the concept of attention, like consciousness, is a mere aspect of mental activity, or information processing, and cannot be considered a separate phenomenon. That is, attention is meaningless unless you consider what you are attending to, and to explain any behavior through an appeal to ‘consciousness’ or ‘attention’ as separate indivisible entities is to explain nothing at all.

    As a postscript to this argument, the fact that information and not attention mediates flow states receives its easiest confirmation through the fact that individuals often report flow experiences while preparing to engage in flow producing tasks. A rock climber who is sorting out his equipment prior to a climb will experience flow because he anticipates or models the imminent circumstances of the climb, and not because he is attending to the gross stimulus aspects of climbing a mountain, which clearly cannot be the case.

  3. Demand/Skill Match
  4. The matching of demand and skill, or the flow channel is the underlying substrate for flow, and is nothing more than a class of information, or a perceptual set. In this model, flow is corseted into this invariant flow channel like a tanker in a lock of the Panama canal. But that’s the problem. The flow channel is the sacrosanct basis of the flow experience, and is quite literally, timeless. But even flow has to flow in time, and the fact that perceptions of skill and demand can vary or be anticipated to vary in time adds a dimension to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s model that he never considered. A musician or artist experiencing flow may perceive a present matching of demand and skill, but each is doubtless aware of a more uncertain future wherein these perceptual parameters may not match. Indeed, they will more likely anticipate small variances in demand and skill when these variances could have a significant impact on their lives. The awareness of this mismatch is sort of like the sudden foreboding that you left the water running after just leaving the house for a long trip. We know we would never be as ardent in double checking the faucets, doors, and windows if we were merely making a short trip to the store. Indeed, the small likelihood that something is amiss will be more likely to cause apprehension and anxiety as its consequences become more severe. This brings us to a contrarian view that challenges even this sacrosanct basis of the flow experience, that it is not the matching but rather a sensitivity to the slight mismatching between demand and skill that elicits flow. We will explore this counterintuitive concept shortly.

  5. Intrinsic Motivation
  6. Little children have a way of being motivated that invariably charms and infuriates their elders. Motivation comes literally from within, as when little Johnny breaks the vase because he ‘just wanted to’. For most of us, we would just repay little Johnny for his refreshing candor with a cane to his behind, yet psychologists tell us that he is not to blame since, his behavior is sparked by an internal or intrinsic motivation that deserves praise, not a spanking. This intrinsic motivation means that Johnny behaves because of the mere pleasure he finds in behaving. That is he behaves because he behaves. Of course, parents know better than believing this nonsensical circular reasoning. Little kids can’t explain why they behave because they can’t yet articulate why they behave. If you can’t explain it, it just ‘happens’, but this doesn’t give you justification to invent some new motivating force or principle. But idle minds are a psychologist’s play things, and they sustain the mystery by hypothesizing obscure inner forces as comprising those idle motivations. These inner forces are commonly subsumed under the term ‘intrinsic motivation’, or as Dr. C. defines them, as ‘autotelic’ motivation. Intrinsically motivated people are like perpetual motion machines, since they behave for the mere sake of their art, game, music, avocation, etc. Intrinsic motivation is a much more reliable source of motivation than extrinsic motivators, which generally represent future goals.

    Intrinsic motivating events are initiated by present rather than future events that can’t be described through self evident or empirical facts, but are rather aspects of some nebulous impulse, drive, creative spark, etc. The separation of intrinsic from extrinsic motivating events stems from the common sense idea that present and future motivating events can be somehow detached from one another, and represent entirely different processes. But is this true, or are we unknowingly playing the role of little Johnny, who says he behaves because he behaves only because he can’t define the simple facts of his behavior?

    Consider a fudge brownie. I eat the brownie, I know that I will feel good when I eat it, that I will feel full in a few minutes, and in a few days I will feel fat. The present, near future, and far future events that are perceived when I munch on a brownie are all perceptual aspects of the brownie. The brownie can thus be defined in three dimensions, and the fourth dimension of time. The motivating effects of eating a brownie reflects merely a predictive relationship between the act of eating a brownie and its present (tastes good) and anticipated (weight gain) results. Eating the brownie combines intrinsic motivation (I eat because eating is enjoyable in itself) with extrinsic motivation (future weight gain), but the objective difference between the two types of motivation seems to be that the motivation (i.e. avoiding brownies) provided by gaining weight only occurs at the time when the weight it gained, and not because of the present anticipation of weight gain. But upon a little reflection, it is easy to see the absurdity of this presumption. These predictive relationships occur now, not in the future, as our distaste for eating more brownies does not have to wait until we actually become fat, but occurs because we model future results in present time. The common sense notion that the actual occurrence of some future event proverbially ‘glues’ a stimulus to a response actually has long ago been dismissed by modern experimental psychology, which defines a rewarding or reinforcing event as merely a change in a perceptual relationship between an behavioral (walking, talking) or environmental (a ball in flight) event and its possible outcomes (see dry article#1). Thus the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivating states is a mere illusion. The perceptual events that comprise rewarding events, like the perceptual linkage between relaxation and task behavior, can at first seem invisible, but only because we don’t have the analytic tools to explain them. Like little Johnny’s alibi, if you can’t understand the events that control you, you can’t explain them, and a recourse to intrinsic motivators is akin to saying that I did it because I wanted to, which ultimately describes nothing at all.

  7. Playfulness
  8. Playfulness is a commonly reported characteristic of flow. Rieber (a quote I found somewhere or other, also see his own site: ) summarizes contemporary definitions of play as involving voluntary choice, intrinsic motivation, active engagement, and a make believe quality. That is, you do it ‘cause you do it, you pay attention to it, and its all make believe. This is but a gigantic empty balloon of a definition, but it seems on the surface to be wholly sensible. After all, our own experience testifies to separate classes of behaviors and experiences that one terms work and play. Surely there must be a demarcation between play and work, when some type of innate impulse kicks in to signal a level of enjoyment that heretofore was inhibited by the drudgery of day to day routine. Play signals a sort of regression to the time when make believe, whether it was with Barbie or G.I. Joe, was the type of activity that got us pleasurably through our day. But if play gets people through a flow channel, and indeed is part of flow, then we have to wonder how climbing on mountains and the like has anything to do with such childhood pleasures.

    Actually, play is far more mundane, and has less to do with the play-act activities of little children in nurse and cowboy outfits, and more to do with the fact that a little information, if scheduled just right, can be a very fascinating thing. To explain this, I present a little mind experiment. (A mind experiment by the way is like a lab experiment, wherein you add the logical ingredients to come up with nifty conceptual compounds, but without the sometimes-obligatory explosions.) Let’s say that you were employed in a coal field, with the make work job was to throw pieces of coal over a nearby fence, and that payment was dependent upon how much coal could be thrown over the fence. This is a lame and boring job for sure, but lets say that someone stood near the fence trying to reach for and catch the coal before it went over the fence. Let’s complicate this further by changing the coal to a ball, and having another worker throw the ball at you, while you must try to hit it over the fence with a stick. Going further, lets say that you have to have to run around three cotton pads spread around the field and back to where you hit the ball after you hit the ball. Furthermore, if you didn’t hit the ball over the fence, you’ve got to get back to your home base before someone throws the ball back to arrive before you do. Finally, lets presume that there are thousands of people outside the fence who have a real interest in your success in hitting those balls over the fence. As your job description becomes more complicated, it somehow becomes more interesting, as you, a beleaguered coal worker, suddenly morph into a happy and heroic Mark McGuire. So what all of a sudden transforms work into fun?

    The transition from a coal thrower to a baseball player marks a transition between simple tasks that require little information processing to complex tasks that require a great deal of information processing that must occur now. The fact that choices must be made in a timely fashion, and that the demand of the task pretty much matches one’s skills, means that one will consider a host of behavior-environment relations (e.g. if I swing this way, the ball will likely go that way, etc.) that branch out into a host of latent possibilities like stalks on a Kudzu vine. Because we have to consider so much information, we have to be alert to and choose among many alternatives. By progressively adding these alternatives in our experiment, we are merely requiring our minds to be more active, and activity can be a very rewarding thing, particularly if the end result is a greater control over the behavior of other people. This is easy to see, when we note how an adoring crowd can make a sand lot game into a major league affair.

    Play is information processing characterized by a demand for a rapid shifting between a host of perceptual precepts. In the case of the baseball player, it can range from the direction of the wind to modeling the mind of the pitcher. In contrast, work also often requires the processing of a host of information, but its required timeliness varies considerably. Thus a worker may start the day with plenty of time to complete a project, but as the day passes, find himself with less and less time to complete it successfully. Play naturally occurs in self controlled environment because we can regulate the information we must process within some span of time. Thus we adjust video and computer games, as well as change our golf handicap and chess partners to match the skills we possess.

    The flow experience is a playful experience because the matching of demand and skill forces one to alertly contemplate a host of pressing options. Indeed, many definitions of flow seem to leave out its emotional component, and simply identify it with ‘intrinsically motivated’ experiences of play. Nonetheless, as we have demonstrated, flow is a compound experience that includes relaxation, alertness, and information processing. The concept of play, like flow, is merely a category that includes certain permutations of these three, and outside of that means nothing.

  9. Self Growth
  10. Self growth means that when all the parts of experience come together, a separate motivating entity is formed, that like a helpful little elf, acts as an intelligent agent that instigates and control flow. Thus the ego or the self is employed as a homunculus or little metaphorical man (or woman) who presses all of the mental buttons which result in our experience. The self represents a microcosm of our mental life, and can be relieved and strengthened, energized and depleted, and is in charge of directing all that psychic energy which when channeled efficiently, we experience as flow. These inner agents, or helpful dwarves, are a reflection of experience, which in turn is reflected upon itself in an infinite recursion. Like a set of fun house mirrors reflecting the same image endlessly, the self if but a reflection of a reflection, and we are better off cutting off the endless dizzying chain, since the self only begs the question of causality by obscuring it. Indeed, a better position is that we would be better off being selfless.

  11. Order in Consciousness
  12. Flow supposedly represents an ordering in consciousness (or of its first cousins alpha waves or brainwaves) as opposed to a disorder in consciousness which would presumably represent a lot of nasty things like anxiety, depression, or perhaps the rational thinking that would lead one to dismiss such silliness. This construct of course is pure metaphor, but metaphor is just enough. After all, the holistic consciousness experience which is flow seems to be greater than the sum of its parts, and like a soap bubble emerging from a froth of present perceptions and past memory, seems to detach itself from the encumbrance of neural or even cognitive events to represent a new experience entirely. Explanations like this establish a sort of new age vitalism, wherein consciousness is separated from the informative or perceptual events that comprise it, and acts like it has a mind of its own, which is curious since it has just emerged from mind. But no matter, if flow is just a matter of getting in the spirit, or just getting spiritual, then the holistic experience of flow is just the ticket to distance the flow experience from ordinary experience, and even more ordinary criticism. But of course, equating a state of flow with similar spiritual states like grace, transcendence, and the like is fine as a sort of theology in the rough, but in the final analysis explains flow no better than an appeal to the intervention of our guardian angel, which come to think of it……

  13. Sense of … control, freedom, timelessness, flowing, discovery

When something is on the tip of your tongue, and you just can’t put a finger on it, or can just barely describe it. You don’t know what it is, but you can just sense it! The description of the flow experience as embodying some unique state of mind as referred by a sense of freedom, timelessness, etc. does not mean that you’ve discovered some new sensory apparatus, but that you just can’t verbalize well the experience. Now a real sense would include some organelle that can process this new information. It would be sort of like a third eyeball that can take in ultraviolet rays, HBO and the Disney Channel. Having a sense of something really can’t make sense unless you can elaborate upon what you’re being sensitive about. For example, a sense of control means that you are consciously appraising the various types of behavioral skills that you possess, and all of the swell things that will occur if you display them. Thus a composer who has a talent for melody and orchestration has a sense of control over the reaction of his prospective audience to his compositions. Similarly, a sense of timelessness means that you lose track of the stimulus events which mark time, like a ticking clock, the motions of the sun, or even thinking about time; or a sense of discovery means that you are anticipating the occurrence of a string of novel events.

More often though, we can become confused when the senses collide and blend into each other, and end up not making any sense. Thus one person’s sense of discovery may be another’s sense of freedom, and there is naturally no way of measuring how intense or long lasting that sense is, or even how it can be transformed into other senses of wonder, fulfillment, and ecstasy. Or you can feel like yours truly, whose innocent sense of humor has degenerated into a sense of sarcasm as he has read the pseudo-scientific non-sense that comprises the flow literature. Does this make sense?

Dr. Chickfilet and the Unflow Experience

It is a little known fact that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi had a mentally challenged 3rd cousin on his mother’s side who studied an important variant of the flow experience. Dr. C’s cousin, the late Michelob Chickfilet (pr: Cheek-fee-lay) is best known for his major work: "Finding Unflow", which has recently been translated from its original Serbo-Moldovan. The major work focused on the unique experiences reported by those folks who engaged in tasks that challenged them far beyond the limits of their capabilities. Compiling interviews of several thousand failed artists, clumsy rock climbers, quack surgeons, and people who get caught up in rush hour traffic, Dr. Chickfilet (or Dr. C2) found that they all reported a state of profound agony when engaged in behaviors (creating bad art, falling off mountains, etc.) that challenged them far beyond the limits of their skills. Calling this new experience ‘unflow’, Dr. C2 discovered that unflow represents the investment of psychic energy, or attention, in situations which are completely hopeless. Often this psychic energy has to be vented (i.e. letting off steam) in behaviors such as beating your head against the wall, fender benders, and taking hostages. According to Dr. C2, unflow is a distinctly lowered state of consciousness, and represents an disoptimal state of maximum disorder in consciousness in which the individual is often transported to a new reality (e.g. prison, divorce court), and is characterized by a sense of hopelessness, frustration, and total paranoia.

The above loopy example seems strange because, unlike flow, we know quite well what exactly to expect, both mentally and physically, when we encounter ‘frustrating’ circumstances. We know that there is no special state of consciousness associated with situations that reflect a mismatching of demand and skill. The anxiety or tension that occurs because of this mismatch does not merit some special or unique mechanism or name for the simple reason that we can easily preconceive what anxious states are. Because we quite often confront frustrating circumstances, we have developed a uniform verbal language to describe the perceptual and emotional circumstances of frustration. On the other hand, the perceptual parameters that are commonly assumed to elicit flow (a demand/skill match) are uncommon, and in lieu of delineating the physical correlates (e.g. somatic and neural) responses that correlate with these perceptual or informative parameters, Dr. C. simply offers clusters of metaphors ( a sense of flowing, psychic energy, orderliness in consciousness, etc.) that describe an event (flow) that we have actually little preconception of.

As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff noted: "Cognitive models derive their fundamental meaningfulness directly from their ability to match up with preconceptual structure. Such direct matchings provide a basis for an account of truth and knowledge." The literal, however, cannot capture the order of all domains. "In domains where there is no clearly no discernible preconceptual structure to our experience, we import such structure via metaphor. Metaphor provides us with a means of comprehending domains of experience that do not have a preconceptual structure of their own."

A preconceptual structure represents a commonly shared kinesthetic or sensory experience that occurs before language. For example, we all experience falling, and therefore have all developed common descriptive language for falling. But for most of us, because a flow experience is something we have difficulty preconceiving, we can therefore feel free to map it to almost any variety of pleasant, attentive, or otherwise unique experience that we do have some preconception of. Thus, as is amply attested by the works of Dr. C., flow (which is a metaphor itself) has been mapped to religious experience, non-conscious information processing, consciousness raising, peak experience, and ‘senses’ of freedom, discovery, etc. This riot of metaphor will never explain what flow is because it takes us far off field from a one to one mapping of language and empirical observation which is what after all science is. Science describes events that we cannot preconceive. Whether the event is the structure of the atom, the evolution of life, or the flow experience, the development of a unitary and consistent metaphor (the metaphor of scientific description) is the only tool we have to discover what flow is. All else, including unfortunately Dr. C.’s work, is merely poetry.

Flow and The Design of Cultures

Flow is merely the pleasurable aspect of attention. That attention, no matter how fleeting, embodies the same neurochemical processes that are implicated in the ecstasies of artists and mountain climbers, is a very profound statement. It means that our pleasures can be found in any objects and behaviors, no matter how otherwise trivial or useless, that are engineered by ourselves or others to entail very important results. Our awareness that we can pull our ecstasies out of thin air can conjure something similar to the shock Odysseus felt he tried to remove his crew from the endless idyll of lotus eating. The ‘addictiveness’ of gambling, computer games, and ‘extreme’ sports is no less a reality when cloaked in the euphemism that is flow. So what is our problem with mindless entertainment, or the downside of pleasure? Because it must end, and as with Odysseus’ crew, we must move on.

The demands of our daily existence, and our instincts that lead us to delight in the pleasures of art, music, food, family, friends, and personal accomplishment in the end restrains us from the mindful pleasures that are ironically mindless. Indeed, a day wasted at a gambling table or video game can subsequently cause great depression and discontent, since they impart no significant memories that will be carried on. In contrast, the memory of valuable things travels well, and with it the attention and the pleasure. For example, we can play for three hours an addictive football video game, and be just as enthralled or ‘flowing’ as if we were seeing the real thing. But would we better entertain the memory of a Nintendo game into our future years, or the experience of watching say the ‘Super Bowl’?
Flow is a state of optimal experience only if the memory of that experience can and will be recreated or modeled in the future. Otherwise, it is mere addiction, a pleasurable stasis without time and memory. It becomes a mere species of death. So how can we engineer optimal experiences that will constantly enliven us in memory? The best way of course if by making simple behaviors contingent upon multi-modal demands.

It starts with teaching. In the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’, a gifted English teacher (played by Robin Williams) made knowledge of literature into a means to gain not only academic achievement, but also into a doorway that opened to a cascade of living metaphor. Poetry became a way of getting at the marrow of life’s mysteries, of juxtaposing images and emotions and sensations, of winning a pretty girl’s attention, or as rite of passage to adulthood and maturity. If one can see many images and possibilities in a poetic turn of phrase, then this kaleidoscopic array of ‘extrinsic’ motivators would constantly command attention. It would be at once pleasurable, excite and enable the intellect, and create the ‘intrinsic’ or internal motivation that would enable us to continue to build upon accomplishment.

So what would be our engineered society of the future look like? It would hardly be a Brave New World. Rather it would be more like Shakespeare’s’ England, Leonardo’s Florence, and Mozart’s Vienna. Social engineering would multiply the demands and rewards for excellence across a thousand different subject matters from art to literature to technology, and subject everyone without exception to them. What would we give to be in such a world? Ask yourself that if poised with the opportunity to be such a culture. After all, we vicariously live in them all the time in our popular movies and books. The point is this, superior experience, and the cultures that generate them, get our attention, and keep our attention long after the experience passes. That is ultimately what flow means, and ironically I think, what Dr. C. is trying to say as well.

Flow and Phenomenology

Almost all commentary on ecstatic, peak, meditative, or flow experiences notes their strong correlation and perhaps casual relationship with highly attentive states. It would thus stand to reason that to understand these experiences, it would be more than a little helpful to understand the neuro-physiology of attentive states. Indeed, in the last five years, research in the neuro-physiology of attention has discovered that whenever attention ‘shifts’ to cognitive precept or perception, the neuro-chemical dopamine is released that not only ‘fixes’ attention, but rewards the individual for paying attention. Generally, we are not aware of subjective or felt aspects of this chemical reward. However, in certain situations that impel an individual to rapidly shift attention to a host of salient or important precepts (e.g. creative activity, gambling, sports), the release of dopamine is sustained, with the result that the individual reports a subjective state of ecstasy, pleasure, and bliss.

The research and commentary on peak or flow experiences of course has generally ignored the neuro-physiological correlates to ecstatic states, and has relied on a ‘phenomenological’ explanations of flow that involve metaphorical descriptions of the experience. Thus flow represents an ‘ordering of consciousness’, ‘a sensation of flowing’, the reinforcement of a ‘sense of self’ etc. On the face of it, it would seem that a neuro-physiological explanation for flow would not explain flow any better without the more colorful metaphorical language that after all merely parallels the same common physiological response.

But this is where the problem arises. Metaphorical descriptions break down when applied to other experiences that may be physiologically equivalent, but yet occur in different environmental settings. In addition, metaphorical descriptions often cannot account for gradations of the experience they describe. For example, a person who is riveted to a slot machine or video game more often describes the experience not as an ordering of consciousness, but as a harmful addiction. Thus breathless platitudes that describe creative people who are flowing seem absurd when they are in turn used to describe people who are flowing while engaged in self-destructive or wasteful activities. The same metaphors sound equally silly if applied to events that do engage attention (e.g. reading an interesting book, watching a good movie) but result in good feelings, but hardly ecstatic states. Thus it would seem foolish to say that that reading a good book or watching a riveting baseball game is flow, since flow would be expanded to encompass all sorts of mundane behaviors, and loses much meaning by being applicable to all pleasurable activities.

It is an interesting fact that when we suffer for some reason (headaches, depression, that nagging back pain), we are quick to search out the physiological root of the problem and the assorted therapies that remedy that problem. On the other hand, pleasurable experiences such as flow leave us curiously self satisfied with purely subjective accounts for the experience, as if any explanation other than the ‘phenomenological’ one somehow diminishes the experience. In actuality, the insistence on relying on subjective accounts as related by self reports condemns flow a mere trivial exercise that is at bottom unscientific because it simply ignores science. In other words, knowing what flow is ‘like’ can and will never do. Instead, one must scientifically investigate what it is.

Flow and Metaphor

Metaphor is the use of a word or phrase to label an object or concept that it does not literally denote. However, what a word literally denotes is a matter of shared social convention, and ultimately nearly all conversation has a metaphorical content. For example, the color red represents different qualitative experiences, and arises from the interactions of our bodies, our brains, the reflective properties of objects, and electromagnetic radiation. However, if we say ‘red’, what red are we talking about: blood red, brilliant red, apple red? The fact that the word red has any meaning at all depends upon our ability to preconceive what red is, however the meaning of red can change depending upon the content that is imposed on it through metaphor. Most concepts we employ have a universally shared metaphorical content, and we can talk about colors, shapes, boats, houses, etc., and feel pretty certain that we can accurately convey the contents of our perceptions. However, if we use metaphorical description without consideration of how it is shared within a social or language community, conversation can rapidly become unintelligible.

Lets examine this through the use of four brief examples. In the 1948 movie "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’, Mrs. Blandings gives the following (roughly reconstructed) instructions to a her construction foreman. "I would like this room to be painted in a shade reminiscent of a moist, dew laden blade of grass. For the kitchen, I would like the walls to be as radiant as the color of the rising sun; and for the bedroom, I would like the color to be like the shimmering surface of our local lake during a lazy Autumn day." The foreman then turns to the painter. "Did you get that?" "Yeah, green, yellow, and blue!"

A museum visitor sees a cluster of ink splotches on a canvas, but the local art critic sees a despairing ode to the inherent meaninglessness of the cosmos.

To a simple diner a bowl of raisin bran is an enjoyable breakfasts, but to a restaurant critic, the same fare can equally be interpreted as an apotheosis of raisin and bran, leading to an epiphany of flavor.

An emperor’s tailors spin an outfit out of the rarest and most sheer fabric, and his subjects clearly agree. But to a little boy in the crowd, the emperor has no clothes.

I am climbing a mountain and feel relaxed and very alert, or am I really investing psychic energy on a limited stimulus field leading to an undreamed of level of consciousness?
In all of these examples, the primary somato-sensory experience (vision, taste, musculo-skeletel responses) are the same regardless of the interpretation bestowed upon them. However, these experiences are nonetheless qualitatively different because the metaphors use to describe them impart not only meaning but also the memory of experience, and it is memory that gives clothes to the emperor.
Metaphors involve the cross-domain mapping of one level of experience or imagined experience (epiphany, despair, a sense of flowing) to another (a particular taste, vision, or relaxed and alert state). However, metaphors are not merely words, but are evocative of memories of sights, sounds, and feelings that occurred in different places and different times. Thus artistic, literary, and even flow experiences are qualitatively different because of and not in spite of them. Similarly, although the sight of a waterfall is the same for man and beast alike, the metaphors that we use impart memories that make experience unique. These recalled metaphorical description of a waterfall experience may be sensory (cool, moist, wet), emotional (relaxing, soothing, refreshing), and spatial (gushing, flowing), or evoke other places and times (‘flowing like the fountains of Olympus’).

Literary metaphors, such as those which describe a waterfall, color scheme for a house, art work, etc. evoke many disparate entailments that can be combined in innumerable ways. On the other hand, scientific metaphors have limited and consistent entailments, and thus the concept water remains unembellished by extra metaphor, or else is reduced to the chemical formula H20.

The problem with many of our experiences is that we confuse the primary somato-sensory experience with the disparate memories that are mapped to it, yet which can elicit unique experiences of their own. As my examples imply, if we insist that unshared metaphor represents the universal or primary property of some experience, we are actually imposing an interpretation (as well as the feeling it entails) upon other individuals that may often be interpreted by them as not insight, but arrogance. That is, to unilaterally assume that a literary interpretation is a scientific interpretation is to impose universal meaning when there is no universal meaning to be had. This is precisely the problem with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s interpretation of the flow experience.

As I noted earlier, the primary somato-sensory experience behind the activities that are normally attributed to flow are uncommon, but not unusual. However, unlike other more common emotional and sensory responses like muscular tension, color perception, etc., we generally have no single preconceived metaphor that we give to the phenomenon that describes its universal underlying characteristics. Thus for example, the universal metaphors that underlie Mrs. Blandings poetic metaphors are three universally understood colors. In contrast, the application of Dr. C.’s self sampling procedure (ESM) results in a welter of various metaphors (sense of flowing, playfulness, psychic energy, higher consciousness) that gave a feel to the concept that is hard to pin down. Most notably, he neglects to specify any universal metaphor that covers every instance of flow. The result is that the flow experience is diffusely described, and thus by meaning everything flow can ironically seem meaningless. It is as if you were a blind person suddenly given sight. Since you have no access to visual metaphors (green, blue, etc.), you would describe your experience using metaphors derived from the senses of smell and touch. In time, you would begin to share the universal metaphors that entail color, and you would be able to distinguish universally shared metaphors (color) from the unshared metaphor that, as literature demonstrates, makes your experience richer and uniquely varied.

Dr. C. does not provide scientific metaphor because he is essentially uninterested in deriving the primary somato-sensory experience that is consistent among those interviewees who reported a special flow experience. By mapping reported experience to precisely measured (through the use of the GSR, EMG, EEG, or other devices) somato-sensory experiences across separate individuals across time and information (e.g. demand/skill match, environmental contingencies) the specific physiological and neuro-physiological indices for flow may be precisely recorded. Unfortunately, this within group design has rarely been used in flow research. Rather, between group designs have been favored that begin with the compilation of the varied metaphorical descriptions of experience, which are then statistically correlated. Metaphors are then correlated to metaphors in a seemingly endless chain. Thus the self reports of a ‘sense of control’ are correlated with ‘a sense of playfulness’ which is correlated again with ‘positive affect’ in a rosary of infinite metaphor.
In the flow literature, imposed experience (memories evoked from metaphor) far overshadow primary experience (neuromuscular correlates to relaxation and alertness), and this is due in large measure to Dr. C.’s refusal to even consider methodologies that can isolate these events and the universal metaphors that can explain them. On the other hand, an analysis purely based on cognitive neuro-physiology, such as the one I provided at the beginning of this essay, necessarily excludes imposed experience in favor of an analysis of the primary experience. Both viewpoints, taken as sole explanations, are wrong.

The dilemma faced in the definition of flow recalls the similar paradox faced by quantum theorists who recognized that they could never predict the absolute direction and spin of a sub-atomic particle because their very observation would alter it. The fact that our definitions elicit experience, and do not merely describe experience, neatly divide the ‘flow’ experience into two different subject matters. The first involves the conscious metaphorical descriptions that make artistic, sporting, etc. experiences different for each of us. The second subject matter, which is the province of the ‘hard’ psychological sciences that are far less tolerant of literary metaphor, simply tracks physiological responses to nonconscious (and thus nonmetaphorical) information across time. To understand both is to be able to maximize our experience, just as we need to know primary colors, we need to know how to poeticize color. Our understanding and experience is impoverished without both.


In the 18th century, one of the most remarkable physical events was one of the most ordinary. A simple fire represented a radical transformation of matter that could hardly be explained by the metaphorical (i.e. common sense) language of the time. But remarkable events merit remarkable causes, and it was thought that the hypothetical element phlogiston was responsible for combustion. Of course, phlogiston was always a make believe element, but it seemed to simplify things. For budding chemists, it was easy to make a claim to originality by adding phlogiston to chemical equations, as if chemistry could be remade not with painstaking analysis, but with the addition of a simple cipher.
Of course, the chemist Lavoisier exploded the phlogiston myth by demonstrating that combustion occurred through the interaction of matter and oxygen. Combustion in other words was a natural process that employed physical entities that were already well known, and hence hardly needed a new one to make understanding any easier.

In the 20th century, we also see remarkable mental causes in ordinary behaviors that become extraordinary because our common sense can’t come to terms with them. Bogus concepts such as hypnosis, ESP, meditative states, etc. have long been dismissed by rigorous scientific inquiry, yet unfortunately still garner legions of willing believers since such ‘extra-psychological’ causes don’t require us to rethink the metaphorical (and often wrongheaded) ways we think the mind works.

Flow is a quintessential example of this. Common sense tells us that decision making is disembodied, and that emotions occur only to disrupt and distort thinking. However, modern cognitive science tells us that emotions are an ever present arbiter of behavior, and that if we were without them for a second, our ability to make sound decisions would falter and near collapse. The simplest type of decision making occurs whenever we shift our attention from one idea or precept to another. Yet even with the simple act of shifting or paying attention, the brain emits chemicals or neuro-modulators that keep us fixed on what we are paying attention to, and nonconsciously signal the importance of the object of our attention by giving that object ‘appetitive’ value. Or in other words, it feels good. We are generally unaware of the emotional or ‘hedonic’ value of paying attention as we go about the course of our lives. But the same processes that keep our attention focused on brushing our teeth or driving our car are greatly accentuated when our attention has to rapidly shift between a host of important precepts. Creative, sports, and other wise demanding behavior cause a sustained release of neuro-modulator (dopamine), with the result that thinking becomes very efficient, very rooted, and very pleasurable.

Naturally, common sense is at a loss to explain these good feelings, but if we don’t know what they are, we certainly know what they are like. Hence, the postulation of a singular ‘flow’ experience that has been likened to elevated states of consciousness, a heightened sense of self, etc. Now there is no problem in using metaphorical entities to describe how we go about the world. Indeed, we could hardly communicate without them. However, when it is insinuated that metaphorical entities are ‘real’ entities, then reality becomes mere poetry. By equating what something is like to what that something really is, this evident illogic can spill over into breathless tomes that merely obfuscate the simple facts of observation that make science so compelling and ultimately so simple.

So the flow metaphor exists and is useful, but the flow ‘state’ does not. Like phlogiston, it too will die as common sense begins to encompass scientific observation. As Galileo, Lavoisier, and Pasteur eliminated the incorrect metaphors that made orbiting suns, combustible elements, and disease causing vapors real, so too will neuroscience eliminate spurious ‘flow’ states.

It is only a matter of time.

The Last Flow Guide You’ll Ever Need

After my thorough pummeling Dr. C. and his conceptualization of flow, a reader invariably comes to the ineluctable conclusion. Ok wise guy, can you do better?

To which I arrogantly answer, of course. Actually, a better explanation for flow serves little purpose if it suggest procedures or guidelines for its creation that are little different than the general suggestions Dr. C. dished up. So, in the summary that follows, I will outline my own flow theory, and I will include some very significant procedures for its control that incidentally will serve to confirm my theory at the same time.

Of course, if you the reader find my own explanations more logical and useful than Dr. C.’s, it may cause a bit of confusion if you still call your experience flow, since that implies that you are buying into Dr. C.’s rather than Dr. Mezmer’s definition. Thus, I would appreciate it if you rename the experience FRED. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Flow can become Fred and Fred Flow. It’s just that Dr. C. can remain the guru of flow, whereas I would like to be the master of Fred. This solves a lot of problems, particularly of the copyright type. Anyways, to my Fred theory.

Basic Assumptions
  1. Whenever we shift attention from one cognitive precept (i.e. idea) to another, the neuromodulator dopamine is released in the midbrain. Dopamine fixes attention, makes thinking more efficient, and increases alertness.
  2. The level of dopamine scales (i.e. increases) as the importance of the cognitive precept increases.
  3. High and sustained levels of dopamine are associated with feelings of elation and pleasure.

  1. If we rapidly shift attention between a series of important cognitive precepts, the sustained and elevated release of dopamine will occur. This will be subsequently reported as a state of high elation or pleasure.
5. Additional somatic (muscular tension, anxiety, etc.) responses can also be present during rapid attentional set shifting, occur in tandem with the neurochemical results of that shifting, and are subsequently reported (often favorably) as a state of excitement.
  1. Background and otherwise neutral elements of those cognitive precepts will be nonconsciously perceived to correlate with dopamine release. These neutral elements will also elicit dopamine release, even when rapid attentional shifting is not demanded.
7. The mental representation or imagination of these elements will also elicit dopamine release.
(by the way, this outline is greatly expanded with journal references in the section ‘flow: a reverent interpretation)
Implications:The implications of a dopaminergic definition of flow are several, and are quite significant.

First, if rapid attentional set shifting between salient precepts elicits the high and sustained release of dopamine, and if dopamine facilitates learning and is a natural reinforcer (i.e. it feels good), then school curricula or work routines that are designed to create this behavior will both facilitate learning and make learning or work ‘intrinsically’ interesting. This gives a literal meaning to the idea that learning can be addictive!

Second, if dopamine release continues after the perceptual contingencies that elicit it cease, and if that release is continually signaled by the neutral environmental setting in which it occurred, then procedures may be designed to bring dopamine release under a voluntary or operant control. For example, an individual may perform a very challenging task in the confines of schoolroom. After the task is completed, the student may still feel pleasurably aroused because that arousal has been ‘conditioned’ also to the neutral environment that it occurred. This is similar to the experience of a crime victim, who may feel anxious when brought back to the scene of the crime, even though the proximal causes of the anxiety (the criminal) are not there. Finally, thinking of the circumstances that produced pleasurable arousal may also elicit dopamine release, and thus create arousal.

A neuropsychological definition of the flow (or fred) experience has massive implications for the design of schools, of cultures, and of how individuals conceptualize value. It underlines the remarkable fact that all humans are chemically dependent, since the hedonic function of neuro-chemicals are necessary for us to learn, think, and behave. Finally, a neuropsychological definition anchors flow to real rather than metaphorical or other obscure events. This allows the design of more effective procedures for its control. Thus, just like a determination of the neural or biological underpinnings of headaches and other aches and pains allows us to design better procedures for their control, as well as communicate what they really are, so too does a similar empirical explanation for flow.

written by me (1999)

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