Against the Flow

In Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, the authors introduce the concept of flow as a kind of pleasurable experience. Flow is the state of mind where someone achieves a high degree of focus and enjoyment, they tell us.
Shortly after finishing the book, I had a brief exchange on the suspension of disbelief [Intelligent Artifice] in which flow was mentioned. It appeared that flow is a popular idea in the study of games.
Being unfamiliar with the origins of flow, I picked up Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (I first browsed through Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Csikzentmihalyi’s monograph from 1975 detailing his research technique.)

i. Flow and Science
Unlike the material sciences, such as physics and chemistry, as well as the behavioral sciences, all of which depend upon observation and experimentation for their results, Csikzentmihalyi’s work is based on that most questionable of methodologies, the questionnaire. By taking a survey of a select group of individuals — surgeons, rock climbers, chess players — Csikzentmihalyi was able to derive the concept of flow based on the subjective experiences of the people interviewed. Flow, as experienced by these people, exists.
That’s about as scientific as it gets. Oh, sure, Csikzentmihalyi goes on to present a number of characteristics of the flow state, such as a loss of self-consciousness and the transformation of time, but none of these ideas is presented in an even remotely scientific context.
Take this “transformation of time” notion, for example. Here is something that could be scientifically studied. First, devise a experiment to measure the awareness of time by a subject, and then observe the subject in a number of different situations. Is there a measureable difference in how they experience time in the different situations? Or do people, in general, just have a pretty poor sense of time to begin with? My money is on the latter.
But does Csikzentmihalyi’s research into flow attempt such an experiment? No. At least, no such research appears in his writings, which he would certainly be obligated to cite if this were a truly scientific inquiry.
Flow doesn’t even wear the trappings of a scientific publication. There are no footnotes, only an informal notes section, and there is no index. There are 23 pages of references, and 36 entries cite Csikzentmihalyi’s own work.
ii. Anecdotal Flow
If there’s no science here, what is there? Here’s an example:

An acquaintance who worked in United
States Air Force intelligence tells the story of a pilot who was imprisoned
in North Vietnam for many years, and lost eighty pounds and much of his
health in a jungle camp. When he was released, one of the first things he
asked for was to play a game of golf. To the great astonishment of his
fellow officers he played a superb game, despite his emaciated condition.
To their inquiries he replied that every day of his imprisonment he imagined
himself playing eighteen holes, carefully choosing his clubs and approach
and systematically varying the course. This discipline not only help
preserve his sanity, but apparently also kept his physical skills well

Not only is this an anecdote, it is an absurd and implausible one. A friend told you a story about a guy?
I’ve pulled out this particular anecdote because it also hints at a nonscientific and utterly unfounded idea: the power of mental visualization.
With “mental visualization”, you can hone a skill simply by imagining yourself performing some task. Real, physiological results, affecting things such as muscle memory, coordination, perception, and so on. We’re not talking about simple human capabilities combined with physical manipulation, such as lying on a bed of nails or breaking a stack of bricks with a bare hand. Those things have been observed many times.
Csikzentmihalyi’s stories, however, read as a kind of Weekly World News of optimal experience. In Ancient China a man was reported to experience flow. In a small Swiss village a woman lives a life of harmonious flow. This man survived the Nazi Holocaust by escaping into a flow state. These are fantastic stories, and they are life affirming, but nothing else.
iii. Flow Is
After reading Csikzentmihalyi’s book, it isn’t clear to me exactly what flow is supposed to be. Is it a mental state? Is it characteristic of some activity, as in a flow activity? Or is flow merely an abstraction of certain kinds of experience?
It appears to come in different sizes, as Csikzentmihalyi talks about microflow activities. Can one experience maximum flow? Semi-flow? Partial flow? Active flow and passive flow? Optimal flow? Dull flow?
Is is observable, can you witness someone experiencing flow? Or is it merely statistical, the right hand side of some bell curve? Are there things which prevent flow? Is flow an emotion? Are there analogous states to flow, such as optimal boredom or anxiety? Does flow have different states or stages?
None of these questions is answered or even addressed by Csikzentmihalyi.
iv. Flow Behavior
Csikzentmihalyi’s first book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, has a title that is suspiciously similiar to the title of another work of that same period, namely B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). Is this supposed to be some clever reference to Skinner’s work, suggesting the idea that behaviorism causes boredom and anxiety?
Let’s take a look at the differences between Csikzentmihalyi’s psychology and behaviorism. One primary difference is that flow is created by turning in towards the self, it a self-oriented behavior. Flow tries to remove a person from the environment, making concerns about social class and status irrelevant. In the society of flow, each person is only concerned for their own well-being.
Csikzentmihalyi’s lack of interest in how the individual is supposed to suvive within an environment is matched by his simplistic understanding of human history. Religions are simply systems for coping with the chaos of the world; they are innocent of all politics and interpersonal struggle. One of Csikzentmihalyi’s main implications is that the external environment does not matter one whit; one who has mastered the self-discipline to experience flow can enjoy life no matter where they may be.
A nice idea, and one that is sure to appeal to the New Age crowd. But this is quite a different message from the one Skinner advocated, a behavior-based world with mechanisms of counter control and suggestions of socialism. Indeed, Csikzentmihalyi’s flow idea is a contradiction of all that behavioral science has said over the years.
You may like that idea. You may be in favor of selfish behavior. I care for it not.
v. Positive Flow
It appears that flow has become a central concept to a new cultural movement: positive psychology. This is a psychology of positive things, the study of pleasant experiences and happy memories.
But positive psychology is merely a polarizing tactic — it states that if present-day psychology only looks at bad things, if there are only bad things on this end of the scale, then there must be good things at the other end, and so why not create a new psychology for good things? This is a great tactic if you are interested in tossing aside the established methodologies of a field.
The less said about positive psychology the better, except that flow has now also become tangled up with the study of games, thanks to Salen & Zimmerman. Games are now an activity that can potentially provide optimal experience. The “flow diagram”, which opposes “skill” and “challenge” on the axes of a graph, and where the “flow channel” is the part of the graph where skills are equal to challenges, is sure to become a staple of game studies programs everywhere.
And that is unfortunate, because game studies already suffers from a lack of significant critical thought. Getting mixed up with pseudo science is not a healthy activity for a young discipline.
vi. Don’t Go With the Flow
The real genius of flow is it’s name. Flow. An everyday word. Imagine if Csikzentmihalyi had tried to label his phenomenon with something more scientific sounding, like alpha flow, or the ludic state. With those terms, asking someone if they were experiencing alpha flow or a ludic state would encourage a more thoughtful reply.
But as it is, it is easy to say “yes” when someone asks, “Are you experiencing flow?”
How can you experience it, when no one knows what it is?
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, 1990, ISBN 0-06-092043-2 (pbk)

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23 Responses to “Against the Flow”
  1. Aubrey says:

    There was a lot of research into this phenomenon recently (I’m afraid I can’t find the links, but there were definately some BBC reports about it). It wasn’t called flow. It was called “being in the zone” or something. Something about alpha brain waves or something, when they go into a state where they feel like the task at hand is totally intuitive. Err. But I can’t remember, really. Zen meditation. Err?
    I’m… I’m really not helping, am I?
    (Or maybe I’m just bolstering your point by talking about something I can’t really define. Uh.)

  2. Aubrey says:

    Oh I remember now! Flow is something to do with a period, isn’t it??

  3. JP says:

    Aubrey’s brain is having a heavy flow day.

  4. Walter says:

    Being-in-the-zone…sounds Heideggerian. :)

  5. Walter says:

    Actually, I’ve just now discovered that ‘flow’ (not necessarily his term) is actually quite important to Heidegger’s inquiry into being.
    The thing is, you can’t answer ‘yes’ to the question, “Are you experiencing flow?” You can’t be reflective during flow. You can only answer ‘yes’ to the question, “Did you experience flow?”
    Attacking the methodologies of study and whatnot is fine, but a skepticism over the phenomenon of flow is like skepticism over the phenomenon of love.

  6. Brandon says:

    Well, to not be skeptical of love is not to be skeptical at all. It strikes me as odd that you would describe concepts like flow (and love) as being states which preclude/exclude reflection on themselves. I think all that does is make reflection impossible, if you can never be aware of the state you are in while you are in it.

  7. Walter says:

    Well, I don’t mean that love is a state that precludes reflection on itself. I just meant that both flow and love are states you can know if you’ve been in, apart from anyone else’s proving that the phenomenon exists.
    But flow, in virtue of its being a non-self-conscious state, precludes reflection on itself while in that state. You can certainly ascertain that you were ‘in flow’ afterwards, though, because the memory of its experience should still be accessible.

  8. Walter says:

    Hmm, perhaps I shouldn’t be so dogmatic on that point. The examples I have in mind are all pretty intense states of ‘flow’ (reminds me: good representations of it in film would be just before David Helfgott’s breaking point in Shine, or Chow Yun Fat in Hard Boiled). At a lower intensity I’m sure someone could answer ‘yes’ while being in the state, although then it becomes difficult to distinguish “low intensity flow” from simply feeling charged or enthusiastic, if they’re not all part of the same psychological genus.

  9. Brandon says:

    Trust me, flow is a vacuous concept. Go read the Vietnam POW story again.
    Of course, states are themselves a rather messy and unsatisfying concept, if you’re talking about internal states. That your examples of states are drawn from cinema is rather telling.

  10. Walter says:

    I only cited them as representations, but they also happen to be examples from cinema that represent the internal state. They’re not at all the only examples I could draw upon.
    At any rate, I AM insistent that flow is not a vacuous concept (I make no claims as to the consistency of that concept across literature, however). What it is, is messy. No doubt about that. That’s the nature of internal states. This just goes back to my talk of love, however. There’s no basis on which you could deny the existence of flow, and not similarly be forced to deny the entire gamut of emotions and pretty much all internal states for which we have a name.
    What I’m somewhat awestruck by is the extent to which you think science must somehow prove flow’s existence before it can even be accepted.

  11. MR says:

    We lack precise words to describe feelings. And when you can’t talk clearly about something, writing a whole book about it without even trying to clarify your ideas is either quixotic or sophistical.
    And “love” is just as dubious as “flow” in this regard, as everyday experience amply illustrates. “I thought I was in love … but I guess I wasn’t.” If a concept is so messy that you can’t identify it, then you cannot be sure it isn’t vacuous. “No entity without identity,” as Quine used to say.

  12. Walter says:

    I’d agree you can’t be sure it isn’t vacuous, but on those terms, neither can you be sure it is.

  13. MR says:

    I am happy to agree that I can’t be sure that “flow” is non-vacuous. Likewise “love” (cf. Foreigner’s signature ballad “I Wanna Know What Love Is”). Indeed, just as I cannot be certain whether “flow” is a gold mine for future ludological research or total piffle, I cannot be sure whether Madonna’s “groove” is an important concept in the phenomenology of mind or merely an easy rhyme for “move.”
    People have vague names for their feelings. If someone claims that one of those names describes a non-vacuous phenomenon, then the burden of proof lies on them to clarify what they’re talking about. Otherwise, they remain on the same level of epistemic insight as pop music.

  14. Walter says:

    Agree entirely. However, I do think that the usual explanation of flow is more or less adequate for many people’s apprehending it, this being so because these people have all experienced a phenomenon which, even if not entirely discrete, distinguishes itself from phenomena that terms besides ‘flow’ and “being in the zone” are taken to refer to.
    I can only assume that the literature Brandon surveyed provided him with numerous examples of what could have potentially been an experience of flow, but if none of these examples jumped out to him as being distinguished in some way from all other personal phenomena that he feels is non-vacuous as a concept, then I can only further assume that perhaps he’s simply never had a comparable experience. Which strikes me as unlikely, but certainly still possible.
    And even while I agree that people who claim flow is non-vacuous should be held to clarifying what they’re talking about, they cannot be held to this arbitrarily, such that no matter how clear they get in their description, the other always replies, “I don’t see it.” The skeptic must similarly be held to explaining what could be the reasons for widespread belief in a supposedly vacuous concept.

  15. MR says:

    I doubt that the “usual explanation” of flow is adequate, any more than the usual explanation of the supposedly familiar concept of love is adequate to prevent frequent romantic confusion. Brandon raises cogent objections to the adequacy of “flow”: e.g., it may be a conflation of fundamentally different categories, such as certain mental states with certain types of activity. An eliminativist account might find that “flow” is actually two very different types of brain activity that people describe, with nudging and leading interpretation, as “roughly” the same. Etc. The problem is, as I’ve said, that our language for describing feelings is extremely vague.
    As for an explanation of the widespread belief in a supposedly vacuous concept, that is easy for the skeptic to provide: whereas love and other folk psychological terms at least have the virtue of being embedded in speech about feelings since time immemorial, “flow” is an invention of recent date, and belief in its existence is causally traceable back to “researchers” like Csikszentmihalyi. In fact, the burden of proof here lies again on the defenders of flow, to explain why such a purportedly common experience has only lately emerged as an item of discourse. (An analogous problem forces Heidegger to invent his notion of a self-occulting structure of temporality and, later, an even more baroque history of the forgetting of being.)

  16. Walter says:

    Even WITH a conflation, you are still required to consider flow as a non-vacuous concept. That sort of skepticism is a skepticism of accuracy, not existence.
    Secondly, ‘flow’ as a *term* is a recent invention, but the phenomena (or range of phenomena) it purports to describe (or describes incidentally) is hardly recent at all.

  17. Brandon says:

    Walter: “[T]hen I can only further assume that perhaps [Brandon has] simply never had a comparable experience.”
    Let’s see: As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
    We shall take a closer look at each of these elements so that we may better understand what makes enjoyable activities so gratifying. With this knowledge, it is possible to achieve control of consciousness and turn even the most humdrum moments of everyday lives into events that help the self grow. [emphasis mine]
    In this passage, Csikszentmihalyi first purports to be describing the everyday concept of enjoyment. By the end of the paragraph he is using the term flow experience as a synonym. Obviously there should be something interesting about flow itself to distinguish it from enjoyment, something that is missing from or hidden in his description above. Csikszentmihalyi hints that flow is a kind of internal pleasure that can be experienced regardless of the external environment. (After Descombes, I would say that while enjoyment is transitive — enjoyment is enjoyment of something — flow is intransitive: flow is not flow of anything at all. But I’m afraid only Mr. Rooney will understand what I mean.)
    So, have I experienced “flow”? I have experienced enjoyment, even by Csikszentmihalyi’s terms. I have played computer games which led to concentration and a goal-directedness. I have turned off a game to discover that it is 4 am, truly a transformation of time. But is this flow, or just enjoyment? Given the external quality of the activity, the soothing glow of the CRT, the brooding soundscape of StarCraft, I’d have to say this was plain enjoyment.
    Similarly, reading a book while riding a bus hints at some of the components of enjoyment. It requires concentration, skills, and clear goals. It is incompatible, however, with the transformation of time, because if I lose all awareness of time I will probably miss my stop. And again, this is enjoyment mediated by an external object.

  18. Walter says:

    I’ve not read Csikszentmihalyi, and I would agree that his explanation of the components of flow is definitely unsatisfactory, as is his conflation of enjoyment and flow.
    I disagree that flow is intransitive, and quite frankly, you can stop with being the prick–the post above this one was entirely predicated upon an asinine overinterpretation, as are your responses to my comments on GTxA.
    Apparently this disagreement can only be resolved if someone puts forward a satisfactory definition of flow, whether I or someone else develops it or finds one and refers you to it. This is fine. I’ll work on it.

  19. Brandon says:

    Walter: I am honestly interested in exploring the definitions and assumptions in the currently popular discourse surrounding games. If I practice overinterpretation, it is only in order to pin down the motives behind what people say. And I think you’ll agree that prickishness is a quality shared by many philosophers and critics, to a level that I only hope to aspire to.
    Take a few breaths. See you next week.

  20. Walter says:

    Many philosophers are pricks, to be sure, and the sort of activity which their prickishness leads them to can often be helpful, such as pointing out ambiguities. But being a prick isn’t at all required to engage in those activities. Your expressing a lack of confidence in my ability to understand the transitive/intransitive distinction ultimately has *nothing* to do with your conducting an inquiry, aside from riling me up and causing us to engage in this discussion about prickitude, your rationale be damned.
    Many philosophers advocate giving a generous interpretation. Rather than simply rejecting what they notice to be an inadequate explanation, they set themselves towards trying to see what the person was nevertheless getting at, attempt to clarify the explanation themselves as best they can, and then decide whether there are grounds for rejection or not. There is, at the very least, some productivity involved here aside from simply noticing an inadequacy. You might give this some thought.

  21. Walter says:

    I suppose another way of putting that first paragraph is, “Treat me merely as a means, and I’ll bring you to an end, motherf*cker.”
    (That’s a joke, not a threat.)

  22. MR says:

    Walter said: “Even WITH a conflation, you are still required to consider flow as a non-vacuous concept. That sort of skepticism is a skepticism of accuracy, not existence.”
    No. “Flow” could be a conflation of, for example, “concentration” and “conditioned reflexes within the play of a game.” As there was no such thing as caloric or phlogiston, so too there might be no such thing as “flow.”
    And again, because it is such an ill-defined term, there is no saying whether it describes recurrent features of the mind, or is a fantasy term such as “aura.” Pending a clear definition of “flow” and verifiable claims about it, there’s no point in discussing it. And I think that was essentially Brandon’s original point.

  23. Walter says:

    Yes, you’re right about that. My mistake. I blame the prickishness involved in this discussion as the reason for my not catching that before I posted.