Wednesday, 22 February 2012

eating flow?

I'm currently reading an article in the New Scientist which is an update of recent thinking about the idea of 'flow'; that state of 'effortless concentration' that is said to be associated with achievement and the development of expertise. From what I've read so far, the article seems to be suggesting that researchers are isolating the chemicals that are associated with the state, and experimenting with administering them to people to see if it will help them 'drop into' this state and therefore be more creative and productive, to a higher level.

There must, of course, be a chemical correlate to what they're calling the state of flow. But is seeking to identify and then administer the relevant chemicals going to do it? Make people 'concentrate effortlessly' and 'achieve' at a 'high level'?

'Achieve' and 'high level' are culturally-based judgements (dependent on local context), applied, in a sense, after the fact. The person who has 'achieved' actually has little control over whether or not they will finally get this stamp of approval from the outside world. They may be motivated by the desire to gain such approval, but this may have little to do with whether they get it.

It seems to me that reducing the 'ability to drop into' such states to their chemical constituents is likely to be missing the point somehow. So you take the chemical, feel focussed, start to 'achieve', or concentrate in that direction. But then what? It could kick start a virtuous circle, where the satisfaction gained by said achievement or concentration motivates and feeds the person's desire to keep going.

But I wonder. I suspect that what is defined as a capacity to drop into a state is the result of an existential drive which is integral to an individual's meaning-making system. This meaning-making drive may create the appropriate chemicals, but administering the chemicals to people with all sorts of half-understood existential drives seems seems unlikely to create clearer, or more relevant, frames of meaning (which in turn might drive the kind of concentration and application which this research seems to be trying to get at)....

On the other hand, the power of chemicals to reconstitute the internal/external nexus that is consciousness might lead to all sorts of unexpected effects....


  1. Who needs messy chemicals when you can get the same effect with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)?:

    I once ran into an interesting site devoted to challenging the theory of Flow. Unfortunately I can't find it anymore. I think you're right though - the chemicals are just as likely (perhaps even more so) to be the result of flow rather than the cause.

  2. Or, the chemicals are the result of a sense of meaningful purpose... Re transcranial stimulation, I have now finished the article and actually that's really what it's about! I filtered my early reading in terms of chemicals instead of electricity, though I think the basic questions are still the same. I'll post some more of what the research said another time - it supports Werner and Green, who I've discussed before. Will now check your link - probably the very same article!

  3. Yep, same one. Thanks for posting the link.

  4. "Meaningful purpose" would seem to suggest a cognitive load and therefore the use of expensive resources. I get the impression that flow is due to extreme concentration upon the task at hand such that all mental faculties are focussed upon the same point. Both climbing a mountain (highly physical) and philosophical deliberation (highly intellectual) operations can generate the flow state. But yes I imagine there probably is a significant role to be played by the significance of the motivation to engage in such practices.

  5. Well, that's interesting, I see meaningful purpose as a much more existential thing, a feeling, impulse, an urging, rather than a cognitive load. It's in the physicality of being, for me, not the head. The article does say something about belief in the intrinsic worth of the activity - that to me is an existential link (though of course 'belief' puts it in the head again).

    Motivation. Mmmm. That's a psychologist's word which, in my experience, can too easily be used glibly without due attention to the subtlety of human urgings ... Not that I'm saying you are!

  6. But how might anyone have anything like an urge or intention, will or motivation, feeling or impulse without the means to conjure this up: a body with a mind?

    You're right though - when we go for a walk we don't constantly think about our intention. That was decided at the outset. We might modify it but only then does it make a demand on our mental resources until we chose the new path.

  7. does the body speak only through the mind?

  8. Sorry if I’m seem reductive about this – that wasn’t my intention – though I can see how it might seem so - or be so. I don’t want to be all Cartesian about this because I’m far from sure that a mind can ever be divorced from its body and remain the same mind. The same goes for the body. But when we speak of meaning and purposiveness these things seem eminently well suited to the capacities of the brain in just the same way that digesting food seems eminently suited to the capacities of the gut. That’s not to say that these things exist in isolation – there appears to be a process of constant feedback but I’m struggling to see how, or even why, the body would need to form meaning independent of the sense making agency of the brain just in the same way that I can’t see how the brain would have any concern to digest food.

    Apart from the brain itself, the rest of the body is made up of many different organs and tissues with vastly different ‘purposes’. How these could be thought to speak in concert without the coordination of the brain is difficult for me to fathom. Certainly many old people die from simultaneous organ failure but this is not the body speaking but rather a cascading breakdown of interrelated organs. There is a common perception that our bodies speak to us – as a kind of protest - when we are ill but I take this to be an interpretation on the part of the mind – a making sense and in some cases a consideration of how our decisions and actions (originating in the mind but informed through its intimate relationship in and through the body) may have had consequences for our health. If these decisions and actions originated in the body then the very idea that the body was in some way protesting would seem deeply incoherent.

    Surely the body has quite enough to do already without having to speak, make meaning or have impulses as a single entity somehow divorced from the brain?

  9. Oh lord.. From the end backwards... Certainly not a body divorced from the brain, or the mind. They are seamlessly joined up, as I understand it; in a web of constant feedback loops, into which things flow as much from the environment as from the overall body/mind system itself.

    Feeling under pressure, for example, which is likely to involve the mind and thinking, and often a particular set of external conditions, creates chemicals that research suggests can be implicated in the development of disease if it goes on relentlessly, and for long enough.

    Our decisions and actions certainly seem to be implicated in the production of chemical states which are designed to get us out of a tight corner but not be a staple diet. I would agree that the decisions and behaviours originate in the mind rather than the body, and this, for me, is precisely why it seems that sometimes the body has to protest.

    David Reilly, a doctor and researcher interested in these things, has a model of the gradual breakdown of health into chronic illness. He has observed clinically in a large number of cases that the body sends physical signals if the environment it's in most or all of the time is not good for it. First headaches. Then, when these are ignored or medicated, and the life-conditions remain the same, something stronger, perhaps sleep or digestive problems. If these are ignored, and the conditions remain the same, chronic illness (not that ignoring body symptoms necessarily results in chronic illness, but chronic illness often seems to be preceded by this patter, apparently). I take your point about it not being the body that created the non-health producing behaviours, but Reilly, and others who work with chronic illness, seem to be suggesting that it can indeed protest physically.

    I don't find this very mysterious. It fits a complexity view of collections of cells (bodies), and any number of other living organisms, just doing their best to maximise their chances of survival.

    In terms of complexity thinking, a body, as a dynamic system, would not be seen as an entity coordinated by the brain (or heart, for that matter). It's a self-organising open system, and its control mechanisms are de-centred. I think I read once that perhaps the real controller of things in a human body was not the skin (barrier to the outside etc) but the immune system - the regulator of the constant flow between inside and out. None of this involves the brain or consciousness.

  10. And there was I, preparing myself with all the most compelling evidence I could think of in order to argue that the mind is the locus of decisions and complex behaviour.

    I'm still struggling though to see how any of this is incompatible with my hunch that what you described as meaning, purpose and urges is nothing more than either unconscious brain processes or the mind's interpretation of signals from organs and tissues that are being damaged or mistreated.

    Meaning, purpose and urges suggests a far more sophisticated process of intentionality to me.

    One of the pieces of evidence I was going to raise is the issue of autonomic responses - usually sexual arousal etc - that can sometimes leave people feeling desperately betrayed by their bodies and sometimes so conflicted and ashamed that they avoid seeking help or in some cases justice for crimes against them (usually rape). In such situations I think it would help a great deal to know that the body has it's own biological agenda and is not acting as a whole organism - a unified self.

    And there I go using a metaphor that imputes a bodily "agenda". I think that's an all to easy mistake to make. From what I can gather it's simply a process of stimulus and response. There's no need for something as complex as intention. Many bodily functions are 'programmed' responses to certain stimuli needless of the intervention of the mind. Yes they are behaviours (basic ones) but we get in a terrible muddle when we interpret these as intentions. Even Dawkins’ “selfish gene” was a metaphor that has since been mistakenly interpreted to be a truth about the intention of our DNA.

    Talking of Dawkins there’s a fantastic interview by him of Nicholas Humphrey discussing why alternative medicine actually works that you absolutely must see here:

    There’s also a really good related article by Humphrey here:

  11. What a great interview. Wonderful to hear someone being so articulate about placebo and self-healing from such a position of authority!

    Your hunch that meaning, purpose and urges is nothing more than 1) unconscious brain processes or 2) the mind's interpretation of signals from mistreated organs... These are perhaps a little different from each other, to me. The first seems to suggest that everything is still all coming from the mind, whereas the second allows for something coming from the body, which the mind then makes sense of.

    I suspect I'm still struggling with the mind/body distinction. I agree with you that we 'know' things on a level that we can't reach consciously, but what kind of knowing is it if you can't reach it and use it? Somewhere in the overall system, though, the knowing is there, and I think sometimes it can be expressed through the body.

    For example, my mind is convinced that I want to go off to the city, take in a gallery or two, and then meet up with my friends. My fleshly embodiment, however, in response to this thought, suddenly starts to feel overwhelmed and tired. I'm sure I want to go, and decide just to ignore the sudden tiredness. Body is listening to mind, but mind isn't listening to body. Now, it might be, that REALLY, deep down, I actually don't want to go out the city at all - that on that level that I can't reach I actually want to chill out at home, but my head is full of what I usually do, cultural norms etc etc. I think the body can try to express that unconscious knowing that we can't see. So is the communication from body or mind? Well, it could be as you say, that body is carrying a message from one part of mind, to another part of mind.

    On the other hand, the system may have physically gone on to alert because the planned trip is going to be too much for the immune system as it as at the moment, and it is acting to try to limit a damaging expenditure of energy. Both seem to me to be possible, the only problem I have is the trying to separate them out and say at root, it's all mind....

    Agenda is an interesting one in terms of biological systems. I think you're right, in a way - the agenda is survival, and healing, and even thriving. I would see it as a process of stimulus and response, but I wouldn't see anything simple in that. The whole system reaction of a dynamic system in response to local conditions is not quite as Skinner suggested, as far as I can see. The really interesting thing about that response is that emergence, which can happen as a result of/part of that response, is precisely and exactly NOT something that was programmed, or that can in any way be reducible to the antecendent conditions (so 'strong' theories of emergence suggest, if I remember rightly..).

    Your point, I think, is whether or not the body can have intentions. But I can no longer see 'the body' in this way. I see the whole thing as a bag of chemicals and solutes, with everything affecting everthing else in a multi-factorial and non-linear way.

  12. I guess the problems arise when those relationships between parts break down. Communication does seem to be the key.

    I notice James Atherton has just posted a link to a review by Jerry Fodor that makes it clear just how much uncertainty there remains amongst experts about such matters:

    “If the mind is massively modular, then maybe the notion of computation that Turing gave us is, after all, the only one that cognitive science needs. It would be nice to be able to believe that; Pinker and Plotkin certainly try very hard to do so. But, really, one can’t. For, eventually the mind has to integrate the results of all those modular computations and I don’t see how there could be a module for doing that.”

    Still, it’s fun to speculate, not to mention the importance of viewing experiments with chemicals or electrodes with a good deal of caution as your original post suggests.

  13. Yes, indeed. I guess I just want to see more research that talks like Nicholas Humphrey, to balance things out a bit more.


  15. how on earth do you keep up with/find all this stuff???

  16. Mostly just links from James Atherton's "Recent Reflection" blog. Every Saturday he posts a bunch of links that he's read or seen in the last week:



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