Search This Blog

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Letter from Csikszentmihalyi

A tale of a Quixotic Quest for a straight answer

As the writer of a popular website (drmezmer) in psychology of uncertain worth, from time to time. I receive an often plaintive request and a question. .Please sir, or so it goes, may I please ask you a question? It strikes me as odd, ironic, and a bit sad, since if you know something, and trumpet the fact, questions should be a compliment and a pleasure, and hardly an intrusion. At the very least, questions keep you on your intellectual toes, and provide a correction to the hubris that often befells the intellectual mind.

So, in correspondence, how does this fearless intellectual gadfly bite into his academic prey? Well, with a plaintiveness that would do any character from Dickens proud.

The question's the thing, and beginning with Socrates, the western intellectual tradition wasn't the same without it. For us common folk, answers are easy, metaphorical things, hardly demanding of a minute's reflection. Of course it starts with a simple question. What are apples made of? How do engines work? How does the solar system move? Generally, any of us can oblige an equally simple answer, as we can encapsulate the workings of the universe in a phrase. But simple explanations hinge on observations equally simple. Glance at the innards of an engine, or with microscope or telescope in hand examine the structure of a molecule or a far away planet, and the explanations handed down to us would have to cohere. This can be a real pain for those experts in the 'know' since they have to account for new and plain facts.

A fable provides the best illustration, as the proverbial emperor, parading around in the finest raiment, had to answer to the simple observation of a child that he had no clothes. A truer and notorious example of this is in the experience of Galileo, who chafed in rage at the obstinence of the prelates of his day, who refused to look through his telescope at a new picture of the solar system that bespoke a reality that they could scarcely explain.

"I meant, point it at the sky!" Galileo fumed.

Which of course brings this writer to his own Galilean experience, one of several actually, wherin I presented simple facts to a different sort of priest who would scarcely look into them, let alone explain. This story, which is quite true, predates the age of the internet and email. It begins with myself, a naive business student (FSU, 1979) eagerly fumbling about for answers about human nature and the nature of the job market. At the time, human nature seemed more scrutable, and as an act of intellectual fancy, I chanced upon and thought about a simple observation, namely that an attentive absorption in any demanding act (e.g. creative or sporting activities) will result in a feeling of great pleasure. I was delighted to find that my observation was not a solitary one, but was researched and named by a certain Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, then a psychologist of growing repute. So I sent to him my imperfectly typed explanation of this 'flow' experience. Given that my own theory of flow differed from Dr. C's own pronouncements on the matter, steeped as they were in the New Age metaphors of higher consciousness and transcendence, I expected at most a polite dismissal of my ideas. Quite surprisingly, he responded with a complimentary and non-dismissive response. Few if any, he said, had ever responded with such thoughtfulness to his work, and he granted that my explanation could even be right. A charming response to an explanation that was simple, logical, and utterly wrong.

My explanation of the flow experience simply stated that situations that demanded but did not surpass one's full attention, muscular relaxation would occur as an 'operant' beahvior and allow one to be more resistant to distraction from the task at hand. Of course, it didn't occur to me at the time that muscular relaxation is not generally perceived as an ecstatic state, and that relaxation is not a behavior to begin with, but rather denotes non-activity, namely the muscules not 'doing' anything.

These observations came painfully to mind as in the 1990's, psychology entered a new era when the actual neural processes that underscored learning and motivation began to be displayed by a new generation of tools (fMRI, in vivo neuronal modeling, etc.) that would provide observational grist to a hundred household Galileos that perchance would take a look.

For the flow experience, it was childishly simple. Take a picture, an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance image) to be exact, of an individual mind (brain that is) immersed in a video game, artistic pursuit of other flow inducing behavior, and the subjective impression of interest and pleasure was uniformly matched to a shadow of brain activity, namely an increased production of a certain brain chemical, the neuromodulator 'dopamine' for short, that accelerated or modulated the firing of arrays of neurons, thus serving to fix or 'reinforce' attention. Funny thing though about this master molecule of attention; if its release is high and sustained, an individual will report a state of great pleasure. Thus, pleasure can only be maintained if the dopamine is, and dopamine requires an elicitor, which in layman's terms is no more than a high, positive, and sustained challenge. So the flow experience fits the science in a way not more remarkable than the simple neural mappings that occur when I stub my toe in pain.

I thought thus that, if brains in flow release dopamine, and dopamine release is sensitive to a positive challenge, would not this simple observation be greeted as warmly as my naive and unreferenced hypothesis of two decades before?

Well, no.

A simple letter to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi brought no response, and letters to the dozen or so researchers on flow brought a mere scattering of replies that protested their ignorance or disinterest in the neurological facts of the experience. Neuroscientists were not different. What's a flow experience and who cares anyways came the paltry response.

And so I tried, and tried, from simple letters to complex articles written in journalistic style. And still not the slightest acknowledgement of what seemed to me to be a simple and obvious observation. And on and on it went. As a curious and inquiring layman, the same pattern of silence repeated itself with my simple reinterpretations of other unique behaviors that subserved special and unique processes (hypnosis,
, intrinsic motivation, relaxation response, incest aversion, etc.) , with the former reducing them to a simple permutation of common neural events, like reducing the myriad colors of the rainbow to the mere blending of the primary colors of red, blue, and green.

As an inquiring plebian in the world of patrician science, one can at least find some fatalistic justification in such silence, but other learned voices I found said the same (e.g., Gerald Edelman, Antonio Damasio, George Lakoff). In particular, the distinguished neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, in an essay of eloquent despair, sadly predicted that psychology would be forever enveloped in pseudo-scientific obscurity unless and untill social scientists of all stripes confronted the working reality of the human brain. But of course, the converse is also true, as neuroscientists must also confront the linguistic milieu that gives metaphorical meaning to minds.

In Galileo's time, the discovery of the solar system humbled philosophers and vaulted physicists to sages. The tools of astronomy leveled natural philosophy, and forced philosophers at least to nod to the facts of the physical world. Likewise, the tools of neuroscience have begun to level philosophy, and force social scientists to take a look, and one hopes, neuroscientists to consider philosophy. When that happens, I will know, perhaps from a long awaited response to a simple question.

1 comment:

mkuzio said...

I live a life of dopamine varieties. I have Page's syndrome which cause excess peripheral dopamine secretion as a result of any physiological or psychological stress. I also found out this week that the drug that I take to keep functioning during this dopamine cocktail increases some additional dopamine secretion. I feel like a walking dopamine factory. I also have cycles that mimic bipolar and really result in my life as being one flow experience after another for a period of time. If you are curious or would like to follow up this post, you can reach me at

I found your site as Google is following all dopamine references on the web and notifying me.