Flow's evil twin

Last night Harry Ramsay hosted a discussion of flow, which left me more of a flow-sceptic than I was at the start.

Here’s what I realized. Flow is part of a spectrum of trance-like focus states. We pick it out because it fits with characteristics which we like: productivity, creativity, accomplishment. But those are characteristics of external society, not of the mental state itself.

I brought up video gaming in the discussion, calling the gamer’s trance the ‘evil twin’ of flow. Look at the properties of flow, and see how well gaming matches them:

  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding
  • Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable
  • Complete focus on the activity itself
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome
  • Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness
  • Immediate feedback
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs
  • Strong concentration and focused attention
  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing

With the arguable exception of ‘intrinsically rewarding’, it is a 100% match.

Harry’s descriptions of his teenage flow states practicing the guitar, in particular, feel indistinguishable from gaming. Both involve mastering a pattern of tiny physical movements, through extreme repetition.

The difference comes afterwards: your self-image is likely better emerging from a day-long music session than from a Warcraft binge. Again, though, that’s a social phenomenon: it’s not hard to imagine a culture which venerates gamers and despises musicians. Would that change which activity gets the label of flow?

Further loosen the requirements of flow, and we end up with more altered states of dubious value. Slot-machine addicts use the term ‘th e zone’ to describe their state of being subsumed within the logic of the machine. And of course we are all familiar with the experience of compulsively scrolling social media.

By now we’ve kicked away much of what makes flow flow. Slot machines are neither challenging nor rewarding. Facebook slips into our lives partly because it (at first) avoids demanding complete attention. Yet something remains common in all these worlds, and more.

Thinking about my own life, I find this comforting. Flow ceases to be an isolated, mystical achievement. It is merely the most prominent of an archipelago of altered states.

Every activity brings its own state of consciousness. Swimming, drawing, dancing, DIY: none of these are (for me) flow states. But each shares something with flow – focus, mastery, serenity, control, the absence of time or the dissolution of the self.

So now I no longer so keen to nudge myself repeatedly into flow. I would prefer to explore the entire realm of activity-induced altered states.

Written on November 22, 2020