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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Flow Experience: A Graphic Explanation

Flow Experience: Discovered by the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who defined it as flowing experience where the self reaches undreamed levels of consciousness and an evolved level of self-hood. It can also mean a high level of attentive arousal during touch and go situations (e.g. rock climbing, auto racing) where you'll likely lose your head along with your self and your consciousness if you don't pay attention.

Flow was coined by the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi[i] to describe the unique emotional state that parallels one’s complete ‘immersion’ in a task. As described by the psychologist Daniel Goleman, “Flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.  In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”[ii] These descriptions are of course metaphorical representations of the experience of flow, and describe what flow is like rather than what it is.  Because these ‘dependent’ measures of flow have no empirical referent (What is the neurological equivalent of spontaneous joy for instance?), one is left with the independent or antecedent variables of demand and skill that elicit flow, which thankfully can be empirically defined. What is unique about these variables is that they not only map to flow experiences, but also other emotional experiences such as anxiety and boredom. Thus Csikszentmihalyi's model does not just represent flow, but a wide range of emotional experiences. The question is, although emotion maps to demand and skill, can demand or skill be manipulated in the moment to elicit flow, or for that matter, any other emotion?

The Flow Channel

On the surface, the graphical representation of the flow channel is simple to understand. Just plot your moment to moment challenge against your moment to moment skill, and voila, you can predict what your emotions are going to be. For any particular task, the problem is that although demand moves up or down dependent upon the exigencies of the moment, skill should be relatively stable during or within the performance, and only change, and for the most part gradually between performances. Thus, one may accomplish a task that from moment to moment varies in demand, but the skills brought to that task are the same regardless of demand. What this means is that for any one performance set, skill is not a variable, but a constant. That is, one cannot adjust skill against demand during performance because skill can only change negligibly during performance, or in other words does not move. Thus for performance that requires any skill set, the only variable that can be manipulated is demand. For moment to moment behavior the adjustable variable that elicits flow is demand and demand alone. But that leaves us with figuring out what demand exactly is.

A demand may be defined as simple response-outcome contingency. Thus, if you do X, Y will occur or not occur. It is thus inferred that demand entails a fully predictable means-end relationship or expectancy. But the inference that the act-outcome expectancy is always fully predictable is not true. Although a response-outcome is fully predictable when skill overmatches demand, as demand rises to match and surpass skill, uncertainty in the prediction of a performance outcome also rises. At first, the uncertainty is positive, and reaches its highest level when a skill matches the level of demand. This represents a ‘touch and go’ experience wherein every move most likely will result in a positive outcome. It is here that many individuals report euphoric flow like states. Passing that, the moment to moment uncertainty of a bad outcome increases, along with a corresponding rise in tension and anxiety.

The Flow Channel

Momentary positive uncertainty as a logical function of the moment to moment variance occurring when demand matches skill has never been used as a predictor for flow, and is ignored in Csikszentmihalyi’s model because uncertainty by implication does not elicit affect. Rather, affect is imputed to metaphorical concepts of immersion, involvement, and focused attention that are not grounded to any specific neurological processes. However, the fact that act-outcome discrepancy alone has been correlated with specific neuro-chemical changes in the brain that map to euphoric, involved, timeless[iii], or immersive states, namely the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems, narrows the cause of flow to abstract elements of perception rather than metaphorical aspects of performance. These abstract perceptual elements denote information, and can easily be defined and reliably be mapped to behavior, and most importantly, corresponding affect.

A final perceptual aspect of demand that correlates with the elicitation of dopamine is the importance of the end result or goal of behavior. Specifically, dopaminergic systems are activated by the in tandem perception of discrepancy and the predicted utility or value of end result of a response contingency. The flow model maps behavior to demand and skill, but not only is skill fixed, so is the importance of the goal state that predicates demand. However, the relative importance of the goal state correlates with the intensity of affect. For example, representing an endeavor that matches his skills, a rock climber ascending a difficult cliff would be euphoric if the moment to moment end result was high, namely avoiding a fatal fall, but would be far less so if he was attached to a tether, and would suffer only an injury to his pride is he were to slip. Finally, the flow experience correlates also with a state of relaxation, which would also be predicted as choices in flow are singular and clear and involve no conflicting or stressful choices.  

The graphical model of the flow experience, like the Yerkes-Dodson model that predates it, is not an explanatory model because it does not derive from a neurologically grounded explanation of flow. Secondly, it is not even a very good descriptive model because it imputes a moment to moment variability in skill within a performance set that is not characteristic of any single performance, and because it ignores other correlations between moment to moment act-outcome discrepancy (or risk) and affect that are well demonstrated in neurological explanations of incentive motivation. Ultimately, the flow experience purports to explain a key facet of incentive motivation through an inductive approach that misrepresents the dependent (skill) and ignores the independent variables (discrepancy) that truly map to the affective and motivational experience that is flow, while ignoring the expansive neurological literature on incentive motivation.  In other words, as a creature of metaphor flow is good literature, but is not good science because it eschews the explanatory essence of science.

Journal Article On Bio-Behavioristic Theory of Flow

[i] Barrett L. F., Russell J. (1998) Independence and bipolarity in the structure of current affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 967–984
[ii] Goleman, D. (2006) Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam
[iii] Meck, W. H. (1996) Neuropharmacology of timing and time perception, Cognitive Brain Research, (3)3-4, 227-242

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