Category Archives: Personal


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flowCsikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
HarperCollins, 1990
ISBN 0–06–092043–2

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Basic Books, 1997
ISBN 0–465–02411–4



finding flowAthletes talk about being “in the zone.” For musicians, it’s being “in the groove.” Even if you’re not an athlete or a musician, you’ve probably shared the experience of being in an alternate state of consciousness in which the outside world falls away and leaves you completely absorbed in the activity you’re focusing on.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-SENT-me-hi) popularized discussion of this human experience as flow. He describes flow as follows:

When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. (1997, p. 31)

He identifies clear goals, relevant feedback, and a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level as the three necessary conditions for flow to occur. The balance between the challenge and one’s skill level is important; if the task is too easy, one becomes bored, whereas if the task is too difficult, one becomes anxious and frustrated and finally gives up. But when these three conditions are met, the flow state of absorbed consciousness often occurs.

The key to flow is the complete focus on or absorption in an activity. Csikszentmihalyi says that such focus produces order in consciousness. He explains that information enters consciousness for one of two reasons: (1) because of our intention to focus attention on it, or (2) because of attentional habits based on biological or social instructions. We can choose what to focus our attention on through our intentions:

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others. (1990, p. 27)

Accordingly, when we intend to focus our attention by concentrating on one activity or task, our consciousness will filter out unrelated stimuli that are potential distractions. This filtering results in the completely focused attention necessary for flow. This is why people in flow lose track of time and don’t notice that it’s time to turn the lights on or cook dinner.

Once flow begins, the “magnetic fields” of our intentions will direct consciousness toward information stored in our brains that might help perform the task we are concentrating on. Ironically, then, we must actively focus attention on a particular area to begin flow, but we must then give up control and allow internal intentions, those “bits of information” stored within us, to direct consciousness in making related associations in order for flow to continue and produce results. When this happens, people often feel that they are not in control of their actions, that some force is working through them.

An important characteristic of flow is that it is pleasurable for the person experiencing it. Csikszentmihalyi argues that, because flow is so enjoyable, people will seek out activities that produce flow. “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself” (1990, p. 67), he says. He calls an activity that produces such optimal experiences autotelic; that is, it is an activity that people perform not because of what they will gain or produce by it, but for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

Another important characteristic of flow is that a person’s sense of self-consciousness disappears. As Csikszentmihalyi explains:

loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are… . Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward. (1990, p. 64)

The flow state is different from ordinary waking consciousness: “Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes” (1997, p. 31). In his studies of flow activity Csikszentmihalyi found that it uniformly “provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness” (1990, p. 74). In other words, flow is an alternate state of consciousness that facilitates creativity.

For this reason flow can be an important component of problem solving. People who are self-conscious about appearing silly or ignorant to others won’t volunteer suggestions to attempt to solve the problem at hand. But when flow occurs and self-consciousness falls away, people will try one possible solution after another until they arrive at one that works. This is why allowing individuals to work alone rather than in group brainstorming sessions often produces better results.

In developing the concept of flow Csikszentmihalyi used “a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory” (1990, p. 25). He explains that, according to this theory, “to be conscious … simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course” (1990, p. 26); therefore, consciousness is intentionally ordered information, and consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality.

Furthermore, the nervous system is limited in how much information it can process at one time. We can hold only about seven pieces of information in consciousness simultaneously; beyond that limit, a new piece of information can enter consciousness only if one piece already there leaves consciousness. This process causes us to experience conscious events serially, one after another. Through our intentions, Csikszentmihalyi says, we can focus our attention on a particular activity. Such focusing of attention allows consciousness to select relevant bits of information, from the billions of bits stored in memory, that pertain to the activity we are focusing attention on. When this complete focusing of attention occurs, flow sets in. From the biological perspective, then, flow occurs when consciousness begins connecting separate bits of information stored within our brains.

Flow is a pleasurable alternate state of consciousness that individuals may experience when engaged in an activity that offers definite goals and relevant feedback and that provides a challenge commensurate to their ability. People in flow are completely absorbed in the activity at hand. Their perception of time is often distorted, feelings of self-consciousness disappear, and creativity is enhanced. If we believe the stories, Einstein was obviously in flow while working; he would forget to eat the meals left for him on a tray outside his workroom door. Authors who say “The book just wrote itself” are also describing the flow experience, in which they seem to lose control as a force larger than themselves takes over.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Best Books I Read in 2014

I read 43 books this year, for a grand total of 12,695 pages. The longest was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which weighs in at 771 pages.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are the 10 best:

Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life
Fergus, Jim. One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
French, Tana. Faithful Place
Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling
Galbraith, Robert. The Silkworm
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Joyce, James. Dubliners
O’Nan, Stewart. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road

After compiling this list, I realize that only one, The Circus Fire, is nonfiction. Although I always read more fiction than nonfiction, I don’t think recall any recent year in which nonfiction was so sparsely represented.

*Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling

How about you? What were the 10 best books you read in 2014?

Personal Challenge: A Blog Post a Day in 2015

I woke up a couple of days ago with this thought: I should challenge myself to write a blog post every day during 2015.

I dismissed this thought right away because such a huge commitment seems like setting myself up for failure. Why not just commit to writing a post a day for the month of January? I asked myself. And if that works out, then do it for another month.

But the more I thought about the year-long challenge, the more it excited me. First of all, I know that some of my best ideas arrive just when I wake up. Sleeping allows my conscious mind to pull what it needs out of the chaos of the unconscious. I’ve learned to trust these awakening thoughts, just as I’ve learned to trust my intuition. Second, setting this goal certainly aligns with my recent decision to focus on my own writing. Finally, this challenge would allow me to distribute content across my three blogs:

On the day when I woke up with this thought, I looked throughout the day for ideas to write about. I was surprised and encouraged at how many opportunities I found.

I should emphasize that I don’t intend to write a post a day on each blog, just a post a day for any one of them.

Therefore, I’ve decided to go for it and challenge myself to write a blog post a day in 2015. I could just make a secret pact with myself to try to accomplish this, but I’m formalizing the challenge here to create accountability. I’ll be much less likely to let myself slide if I’ve made a public announcement.

Meeting this challenge will offer a lot of benefits for me right now:

  1. A writer is someone who writes, and this challenge will force me to actually write instead of just thinking about writing.
  2. Looking for something to write about each day will make me more aware of what I’m doing and of what’s happening in the world around me.
  3. Looking all around me for topics will help me distribute content among all three blogs; I’ve been neglecting my personal blog, and it therefore now badly needs some refreshing.
  4. I know from experience that the more I write, the easier writing becomes.
  5. Completing this challenge will demonstrate that I can write every day, not just when I’m in the mood or have nothing else to do instead.
  6. Keeping up with this challenge will help me to practice, practice, practice my writing.

I will allow myself this condition up front: I know there will be times when I can’t publish a post every day, either because I won’t have internet access or I won’t want to announce publicly that I’m not at home. My commitment is to write a post every day, even if I have to publish it, backdated, later.

So, who’s in with me?

Who will accept the challenge of a blog post a day in 2015?

Grab the logo here:

post a day logo

(Right click on the image, save to your computer, then upload to your web site.)

Monday Miscellany: Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Ireland!

For only my second trip abroad EVER, I am in Ireland for 10 days. This is definitely the trip of a lifetime for someone with O’Dea relatives on one side of the family and Conklin folks on the other.

More literary content next week. For now, I’m off in search of some green beer.

15 Novels That Stretched My Knowledge

I keep finding book lists on the internet with titles like “Books That Will Change Your Life” and “Books That Will Influence Your Thinking.”

So here’s my list (in no special order): 15 Novels That Stretched My Knowledge and Stayed With Me Long After I’d Read Them.

What novels would make your list? Let us know in the comments. Or, better yet, put your list on your own blog and give us a link in the comments here.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Cover: To Kill a Mockingbird

Whenever I get to feeling down on humanity, I reread this little gem of a novel and have my faith in the human race restored.

2. Still Alice (2008) by Lisa Genova

Cover: Stilll AliceMuch is written about Alzheimer’s disease, and almost all of it is from the point of view of either caregivers or family and friends who must watch the heartbreaking decline of someone they love. But what is this disease like from the patient’s point of view? Since the nature of the condition makes patients, at least those beyond the initial symptoms, unable to articulate their experiences, fiction becomes the appropriate vehicle. In this novel neuroscientist Lisa Genova tells the story of Alice Howland, a neuroscience researcher and lecturer at Harvard, as she experiences early-onset Alzheimer’s. Genova demonstrates a range of possible reactions to the diagnosis through Alice’s husband and three adult children, but it’s the focus on Alice’s own experience that makes this novel so stunning.

3. Broken for You (2004) by Stephanie Kallos

Cover: Broken for YouTwo characters form the nucleus of this big, soapy novel. The wealthy Margaret, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. She’s lonely in her huge mansion filled with expensive antiques and decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, a woman in her 30s who has just come to town in search of a lost lover, answers Margaret’s ad. Gradually the list of the mansion’s residents grows as other people arrive to fulfill various needs, both their own and each others’. These characters grapple with life’s important questions—the meaning of family, friendship, responsibility, and love—in a sentimental yet charming way. Who wouldn’t want a group of companions like these imperfect yet lovable characters?

4. Blue Diary (2001) by Alice Hoffman

Cover: Blue DiaryMost of Alice Hoffman’s novels that I’ve read are haunting, but this one has haunted me the longest. What do you do when you find out your whole world is based on a lie? Jorie Ford faces this question when the police arrive to tell her that her husband killed a young girl 13 years before. Ethan Ford isn’t even the real name of the man she married more than 10 years ago, the volunteer fire fighter and pillar of the community, the father of her son. Can she believe his insistence that he has changed? Can love endure?

5. Mystic River (2001) by Dennis Lehane

Cover: Mystic RiverAs kids, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. Then one day a strange car pulled up on the street, and the driver convinced one of them to get in. When that boy returned after several days, his mother told him never to talk about what had happened. Now the three are grown. Sean is a homicide detective, Jimmy is a small-time thug, and Dave struggles to hold himself and his marriage together. When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, Sean investigates and discovers that on the night of the murder Dave returned home covered in blood. The investigation reveals how events, especially secrets, of the past influence the people we become.

6. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

Cover: All the King's MenI was in ninth grade when I discovered this masterpiece. I don’t remember much else that I read during that time of my life, but I distinctly remember this as the first book in which I was able to see how all the pieces of a finely crafted work of fiction fit together. I’ve reread it a few times over the many intervening years, and each time it shines anew.



7. The Blind Assassin (2000) by Margaret Atwood

Cover: The Blind AssassinAn aging Iris Chase Griffen can’t stop thinking about the suicide of her sister, Laura Chase, who drove herself off a bridge more than 50 years earlier. Iris is also haunted by the deaths of her industrialist husband and of both her parents. Interwoven among her memories is Laura Chase’s posthumously published novel, a science fiction story interlaced with parables. Atwood skillfully manages to weave together all these disparate strands into a novel that embodies the complexities of human relationships.


8. The Knitting Circle (2007) by Ann Hood

Cover: The Knitting CircleDevastated by the death of her daughter, Mary Baxter joins a knitting circle to occupy her hands and her mind. As the knitters get to know each other, they learn the healing power of sharing their life stories.

9. The Short History of a Prince (1998) by Jane Hamilton

Cover: Short History of a PrinceAs a boy, Walter McCloud aspired to be a classical dancer. As he grew up, he had to come to accept that he was not quite talented enough to become a top performer. In this novel Jane Hamilton creates a character whom we come to care for before she reveals a key element of the characterization. This novel might not have the same impact today as it did back when it first came out, but at that time I found it an effective antidote to stereotyping and prejudice.

10. Plainsong (1999) by Kent Haruf

Cover: PlainsongThe title says everything about this book: It’s the story of the town of Holt, located on the plains of Colorado, home to seemingly ordinary folks. The novel follows the lives of a group of Holt residents during one year when their lives intersect in unexpected ways. This quiet novel demonstrates that ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things to help each other.



11. We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates

Cover: We Were the MulvaneysThe Mulvaneys were one of those families who had it all: beauty, brains, charisma, and all-around good fortune. But the Wheel of Life inevitably turns. This novels covers a 20-year downward spiral initiated by a few seemingly random events. But that Wheel of Life keeps on turning, until finally this family reaches a point of redemption and reconciliation. Psychologically probing and completely credible, this one has stayed with me for a long time.


12. A Simple Plan (1993) by Scott Smith

Cover: A Simple PlanThree friends discover, hidden in the snow, the wreckage of a small plane containing the pilot’s corpse and a bag stuffed with $4 million in cash. It would be so easy, they reason, to keep the money, and they come up with a simple plan to ensure they won’t be found out. Except that on their way home with the bag an old man on a snow mobile sees them, and so. . . . Every step they take seems so logical, yet there is no clearer demonstration than this novel that once you take that first step onto the slippery slope, there’s nowhere to go but down.

13. Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides

Cover: MiddlesexAs Amazon describes it, this is “ the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.” Astonishing and absolutely charming, this novel took my breath away over and over again.

14. The Most Dangerous Thing (2011) by Laura Lippman

Cover: The Most Dangerous ThingAlmost all of Laura Lippman’s non-series novels deal with life’s big issues. I think this one made the list because it’s the one I read most recently. Since Lippman is categorized primarily as a mystery writer, most of the blurbs describing her books emphasize the mystery angle. But this book is more a study of character than a straight mystery. Yes, there’s a mysterious occurrence that happened years ago, when the main group were children, and I kept reading to discover what that event was. But just as important as the event itself is the way that event has shadowed the lives of the characters, both those former children, now middle-aged adults, and their parents. Like A Simple Plan, this novel demonstrates that our actions and choices have consequences that can affect us for the rest of our lives.

15. Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell

Cover: Cloud AtlasI didn’t discover this book until all the hype building up to the release of the movie version. I took the time to read the book—and a hefty book it is, weighing in at 528 pages—before seeing the movie, and I’m glad I did. In a tour de force interweaving multiple writing styles and literary genres, Mitchell creates a mythical universe demonstrating the intersections between people and the consequences of their actions across time and space.


© 2013 by Mary Daniels Brown