Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Basic Books, 1997
Athletes 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