Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow was enthusiastically taken up by musicians, sportsmen, businesswomen, creative types, indeed by anyone interested in learning, training and high-level performance. It’s that wonderful feeling when one is ‘in the zone’, simultaneously relaxed and concentrated, where one’s actions proceed effortlessly from a deep understanding of the situation. Whatever your particular application (arts, sports, business, creativity) Flow is the optimal state for efficient learning, effective training, and maximising one’s performance.
As part of my research (read more here) for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE, read more here), I’m investigating Flow in the context of various related disciplines. My approach is phenomenological, experiential, based on my personal experience and on observations reported to me by colleagues, teachers and students from their own individual experiences. My aim is to reach a deeper understanding of how Flow works on a pragmatic level, so that I can offer practical hints to anyone who wants to access Flow in their own activities.
In this Introduction, I will summarise the classic description of Flow according to Csikszentmihalyi, and set out various connections which I’ll explore one-by-one and in greater depth in later posts: Griffin’s Dream Theory, Ericksonian Hypnosis, Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice, Neuroplasticity & Myelination, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Feldenkrais Method, Positive Psychology, Historically Informed Performance.
Also in this post, I’ll identify one crucial element of Flow which has not so far received the attention it deserves. I’ll connect this to the background theory, and suggest why this might be the missing link between Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and the high-level, elite performance skills that so many coaches and performers are searching for.
MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI’S FLOW
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Steps towards enhancing the quality of life (New York 1990, on Google Books here), Csikszentmihalyi identifies various elements that characterise Flow. If you experience several of these (not necessarily all of them), you are probably experiencing Flow. These elements can be present in any activity – sport, music, creative writing, business negotiations, public speaking etc.
The activity is challenging, but not impossible. You are pushing the limit of your skills, but you are nevertheless confident in your abilities.
Csikszentmihalyi developed and gradually refined a diagram relating challenge and skill, with the flow-zone in the area of high-challenge, high-skill.
- Merging of Awareness & Action
Your intense awareness of crucial aspects of the activity leads immediately and effortlessly to your actions, perhaps without any intervening conscious decision-process. You notice the situation, and your actions flow from that awareness.
Your awareness is so intense that you are fully absorbed in the activity. Incoming information entirely fills the “bandwidth” of your attention.
- Goals / feedback
The activity has clear goals, and you receive clear feedback on your progress towards those goals.
You are fully concentrated so that nothing distracts you from the activity. Your focus does not shift here and there. Your concentration does not flicker off and on again. Potential distractions (e.g. background noises) do not disturb your focus and concentration.
This maintaining of a narrow focus is subtly different from the intensity of concentration described above as Absorbtion.
You have a sufficient sense of control. As with Challenge, the optimal level of control presumably balances the thrill of unpredictability against the stability of control.
- Lack of self-consciousness
Whilst the activity is in process, you are not aware of yourself, you are not concerned with how others see you, you are fully immersed in the activity itself. Typically, there is a strong feeling of pleasure after the activity is completed.
Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of a mountain climber, for whom the activity itself is physically demanding and requires total concentration. When the climber reaches the summit, only then do the feelings of elation kick in.
- Time Distortion
You may not be aware of the passage of time, whilst you continue the activity in Flow. Only afterwards do you notice how late it is, that you might be hungry, thirsty, or need sleep.
As the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun! I’ll return to this question of Time Distortion, which I consider to be highly significant.
The Autotelic Personality
Csikszentmihalyi considers that having an Autotelic Personality makes it easier for one to enter Flow. Autotelic people (from the Greek words for Self and Purpose) are self-motivated, they can find a sense of purpose in doing an activity for it’s own sake. Here are Csikszentmihalyi’s characteristics of Autotelics, which he derives from the corresponding elements of Flow:
- Taking charge of your own destiny
You believe that what you are doing makes a difference.
- Outward focus
You are focussed on your activities, on the outside world, not introspecting about your own situation
- Goal setting
You set goals and monitor your progress towards them.
You get absorbed by the activities you undertake
- Ability to concentrate
You can maintain a sharp focus over time, without being distracted
You enjoy the immediate experience of the activity at hand.
I would add these two further characteristics, corresponding to Challenge and Merging of Awareness & Action
- Have a go!
You enjoy taking on (new) challenges
- Go for it!
You don’t procrastinate.
JOE GRIFFIN’S THEORY OF DREAMS
My investigation into Learning, Training and Performance rests on the theoretical foundation of Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams and the REM state. In his later writings, together with Ivan Tyrrell, Griffin explores wide and deep implications of his theory, particularly in relation to mental health and creativity. (More here.)
- Dreams are associated with the Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) state during sleep
- The biological function of Dreams is to resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative), generated whilst awake
- Dreams re-present unfulfilled expectations in Metaphors, so that they can be resolved by pattern-matching to recalled memories.
- Some 40,000 years ago, humans evolved the ability to access the REM-state whilst awake: this facilitated learning, language, tool-making and higher culture.
Griffin’s metaphor for the REM-state is the Theatre of Dreams.
Waking access to the REM-state allows us to day-dream, to relive the past, to envision the future, to watch a play in the Theatre of Dreams.
In hypnosis, the hypnotist “hijacks” the theatre machinery, changing the scenery, producing special effects, sending on various characters, directing a play for you to watch (even to act in) within the Theatre of Dreams.
Milton H. Erickson is widely recognised as the founder of modern hypnotherapy. In contrast to the myth that hypnotism is ‘magic’; in contrast to the traditional view of the hypnotist as an authority figure who imposes his will on his client; in contrast to the cliche of watching as the hypnotist swings a pocket-watch and counts down from 10 to 1 whilst instructing you to sleep; in contrast to the Freudian concept of the unconscious as a dark cavern of negativity; in contrast to the caricature of the all-knowing therapist and the helpless client, the Milton method assumes:
- Trance is a natural state that we all experience several times each day
- The hypnotist creates conditions in which the client can feel permitted and able to enter trance.
- Different people enter trance in different ways and have different experiences within trance.
- The unconscious mind can be a powerful and positive resource.
- The client can be helped to access solutions from within their own unconscious resources.
One aspect of Ericksonian Hypnosis is that therapists don’t feel the need to rush through their Pre-Talk and Induction, in order to get the client into trance and ‘start doing something useful’. Rather, the Pre-Talk is seen as an essential and highly significant part of the therapeutic intervention, and there may be no formal Induction as such.
In the Ericksonian view, hypnosis is at work in many everyday situations, including conventional (supposedly non-hypnotic) talking therapies, and teaching/learning. I would also add the performer/audience interaction to this list.
Erickson made a particular study of Time Distortion effects in Hypnosis, where the client’s subjective experience of time, under trance, was either much slower, or much faster, than real time. I will return to this subject, which I consider highly significant for Flow.
Accept & Utilise
Perhaps the most important characteristic of Erickson’s approach was his response to Client Resistance. Rather than struggling to overcome resistance or to ‘correct’ the client’s behaviour, his solution was to accept whatever the client presented, and utilise even the most difficult behaviour as part of the therapy. For example, when treating a delusional client who believed that he was Jesus Christ, Erickson’s approach was not to attack the delusion, but to accept it. “I understand that you have a background in carpentry, would you like to build some bookshelves for me?”. The occupational therapy of woodworking became a crucial component of a successful treatment.
There are many stories from Erickson’s cases, which have inspired succeeding generations of hypnotherapists. My favourite is one particularly difficult case, where Erickson himself was unable to find a successful angle from which to direct his therapeutic intervention. Finally, he put the client into trance, and progressed him into the future, to a time when his problem had been successfully treated. “How was it done?” Erickson asked. Having obtained the answer (under hypnosis, direct from the client’s unconscious), Erickson gave the instruction (by hypnotic suggestion of amnesia) for the client to forget about this exchange, and brought the client back to the present, and out of trance. He then began a successful line of treatment, from the angle that the client himself had described in trance.
For an easy-to-read practical introduction to Ericksonian Hypnosis, I recommend Bill O’Hanlon A Guide to Tranceland (2009). Richard Nongard Speak Ericksonian (2014) draws on his rich experience as a stage and speed hypnotist, clinical therapist and religious minister, and introduces techniques of NLP (see below). Michael Yapko Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis (2012) is a thorough guide to essential theory and current practice, an excellently compiled textbook for serious students. Nash & Barnier (editors) The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis is for researchers.
As part of my investigations, I have been studying the theory and training in the practice of Hypnosis. I am not qualified as a Hypnotherapist, but I am competent to use Hypnosis as part of my work on Flow, in consensual and informed interactions. This training also gives me a better understanding of how hypnosis is at work in many everyday (supposedly non-hypnotic) situations.
ERICSSON’S DELIBERATE PRACTICE
Psychologist Anders Ericsson researches the cognitive structures that underpin high-level training and expert performance. His work shows the importance of sustained, intensely concentrated practice that challenges one’s current skill-levels, deliberately and precisely pushing the envelope, always just outside the comfort zone. As the title of one of his editions – Towards a General Theory of Expertise (Cambridge University Press, 1991) – suggests, although expert skills are specific to a particular domain, the processes underlying the acquisition of those skills are common across a wide range of applications: music, sports, chess, business negotiations etc.
Ericsson’s work has led to a reassessment of the nature of Talent. The modern consensus places much less emphasis on ‘natural giftedness’, even on helpful genetic traits (runners born with long limbs), recognising the importance of environmental factors (in particular, access to training opportunities) and the decisive factor of many, many hours of Deliberate Practice.
These ideas have been popularised and extended in a number of books linking elite performance in sports to effective training regimes on the Ericsson model: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) presents the 10,000 rule (i.e. the need for about 10 years dedicated training to reach elite levels of performance); Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (2008) looks at the acquisition of high-level skills in two apparently unrelated areas, chess and martial arts; Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (2009) examines a biological mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of skills training; Matthew Syad’s Bounce (2011) discounts genetic factors, even useful physical attributes, in favour of Deliberate Practice.
Johan Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0 (2007) follows a similar line to Waitzkin in advocating a narrow focus during training – what Waitzkin calls ‘making smaller circles’. Harmenberg considers performance under intense stress, the ‘Olympic hit’: in such circumstances, even highly trained performers are sometimes unable to access their elite skills. Waitzkin also considers high-stress performance, and draws attention to Time Distortion – ‘slowing down time’ within a particular state of consciousness that he calls ‘the soft zone’. I’ll return to these ideas below and in later posts.
My focus is phenomenological and practical – what is the experience of Flow, and how can we access it? Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and illuminating to examine the findings of Neuroscientists, as they try to understand the biological processes that support the expert skills we wish to learn, train and perform. The metaphor of treating your brain as you would a muscle – use it well, train it deliberately, and it will strengthen and grow – is apt.
Deliberate Practice (targeting precise skill elements, pushing the envelope) carried out in a state of Flow (optimal transfer of information between conscious and unconscious mind) builds new pathways, activates neural networks inside the brain. Think of this as installing new software into your computer.
After a couple of days of Deliberate Practice, your brain starts to grow, physically. You are growing new hardware, bolted-on so as to increase your capacity for the specific skills you are training. The results will show in two to three weeks.
On a similar time-scale (2 or 3 days for activation, 2 or 3 weeks for measurable results), training switches on or off certain genes, optimising your inherited DNA according to the demands your training makes. (This is one reason why identical twins, who share the same DNA, show differences in genetic activity: genes are switched on or off according to the experiences you have.)
If neurons are like wires, transmitting and processing signals through the brain, you can connect them up better, and even add new circuits, with Deliberate Practice. Practising a particular skill under challenging conditions (pushing the envelope) also wraps layers of Myelin around the particular neurons that are working hardest. Myelin is like the insulation around a wire, it stops the charge leaking out and makes transmission more efficient. The more Deliberate Practice you do, the more Myelin you can wrap. You get better, sharper, faster.
And of course, to stay in Flow, as you continue to train, you must continually raise the bar, up the Challenge. As you continue to push the envelope, you assemble more neurons, connect up more neuro-circuits, and wrap them all in Myelin. The skill becomes effortless, awareness and action merge, and you might well start to have some serious fun!
Csikszentmihlayi’s concept Flow is part of a general trend to move away from researching only pathological conditions, mental illness, psychological trauma, and investigate well-being, happiness, positive psychology. Performance Studies can also benefit from a positive approach, with Solution Oriented interventions, learning to acquire confidence and access Flow, rather than wallowing in the pathology of Performance Anxiety.
Nevertheless, musicians and sportsmen know all too well the phenomenon of ‘choking’. Just when it matters the most, the stress of the moment is too much, and one loses access to all those hard-won elite skills. In bad cases, one loses even basic competence, and reverts to crude bungling. This is what happened to the Brazil football team in the last World Cup: after they had Flowed through all the heats, in the semi-final they failed to Flow, and were not so much beaten as annihilated by Germany, 7-1. Brazil choked.
How can we learn to use the stress of a highly significant moment as a spur towards our finest, most Flowing performance, rather than being knocked out of Flow into hopeless incompetence? I’ll explore some ideas in future posts.
NLP takes many ideas from Ericksonian Hypnosis, especially the subtle use of language to influence modes of thought, and distills them into their most concentrated form. Although NLP has become associated with covert hypnotism and unfair manipulation, its powerful techniques can be used beneficially, for teaching and even for self-improvement.
As well as subtleties of language, NLP examines directions of gaze and other outward indications of inner processes. I am interested to explore how this link might be reversed, to use deliberately directed gaze to re-order modes of thought and unconscious processes. Some work has already been done in this area by Feldenkrais practitioners and researchers into Performance Anxiety.
Moshe Feldenkrais was a martial arts expert and engineer who developed a method for learning and teaching efficient, effortless use of the body. Although its aim is similar to that of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method teaches by different means. An ‘Awareness Through Movement’ class invites participants to notice subtle feedback from the body, as they carry out simple, undemanding movements in a relaxed environment. The use of non-habitual positions (e.g. crossing your legs with the other leg on top), or the introduction of a twist into a movement (direct your eyes to the right, turn your head to the left) produces a kind of alienation effect, sharpening one’s proprioception.
Classes include frequent moments of rest, not because the exercises are physically demanding (on the contrary, teachers repeatedly warn not to use too much effort), but in order to let the unconscious and conscious mind exchange and assimilate information. Many elements of Feldenkrais teaching look very familiar to the Ericksonian Hypnotist.
The results of Feldenkrais teaching can be amazing. The Method manages to link up conscious/unconscious learning, mind and body. A good session engages the participants in Flow, and the body Flows beautifully afterwards.
AREAS OF EXPERTISE
Csikszentmihalyi, Milton Erickson and Anders Ericsson all considered that their findings were valid across a wide-range of cases – music, arts, sports, business, any creative and challenging activity.
My experiential approach inevitably draws on my personal experience as an elite musician and teacher (part of my work as a Historical Informed Performer has included acquiring and teaching the related, but distinct techniques for different types of historical harp, Italian, Irish, Spanish, French etc, and the study of such related skills as directing, continuo, and baroque gesture); as a professionally qualified sailor (sailing is favourite example of Csikszentmihalyi’s); as a novice fencer (modern epée and historical rapier) and as a keen student of the Feldenkrais Method.
I’m also consulting colleagues, teachers and students in each of these disciplines.
I hypothesise that certain aspects of Historically Informed Performance of music may be particularly suited for facilitating access into Flow.
QUESTIONS OF TIME
Csikszentmihalyi considers Flow on the time-scale of an entire life-time’s search for happiness. But the Flow many of us are looking for is a transitory state, a temporary heightened consciousness that allows us to perform at our very best, just when it matters most.
Csikszentmihalyi characterises the Time Distortion of Flow as the perception that one has worked only for a short period, whilst in the real world, a long time has passed. This is a useful Time Distortion for training.
But in performance, we are looking for the other type of Time Distortion. The tennis ball comes flying over the net, but for the skilled player time seems to slow down: there is plenty of time to assess the incoming ball, position one’s body and the tennis racquet, and execute a perfect return that will severely challenge one’s opponent. In the Time Distortion of Performance, subjective time seems to slow down so that Awareness and Action can merge, effortlessly.
Erickson wrote about various Time Distortion effects under hypnosis, and about how this relates to the phenomenon of people responding to emergencies with cool, effective action: such people report a Time Distortion of Performance in which subjective time seems to slow down. Waitzkin links ‘slowing down time’ to the extreme stress of what Harmenberg calls ‘Olympic hits’, the most crucial, decisive moments.
TWO KINDS OF FLOW
Having proposed many connections, I’d like to conclude this introduction by suggesting a separation. I consider that there are actually two kinds of Flow, crucially distinguished by two types of Time Distortion. In Flow-T (ideal for training), the subjective impression is that a short time passed, whereas in the real world many hours went by. In Flow-P (ideal for performance), the subjective impression is that time slows down, so that one can effortlessly observe the situation and merge that awareness into action at elite skill-levels.
The two types are distinct but related. I hypothesise that long-term use of Flow-T can prepare the way for short-term access to Flow-P.
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.