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.

Domus Selection

The hallmark behavioral difference between domesticated animals and their wild contemporaries is a lower threshold of reaction to external stimuli and an overall reduced wariness of other species—including Homo sapiens. The likelihood that such traits are in part a “domus effect” rather than entirely due to conscious human selection is, once again, suggested by the fact that uninvited commensals such as statuary pigeons, rats, mice, and sparrows exhibit much the same reduced wariness and reactivity. [James C Scott, Against the Grain]

Domesticated cows are hard to startle. But so are city pigeons. So the cows might have developed their calmness not as a result of deliberate selective breeding, but through the evolutionary effects of sharing habitat with humans.

Change the habitat, change the behaviour. You don’t necessarily need to breed or train waway fear and aggression – just create a situation where they are not useful.

Scott is primarily talking in evolutionary timescales, but the same applies within a lifetime. And it applies to humans as well as to animals.

We are constantly being trained by our habitat. The commuter has been conditioned to stand inches away from his fellow-travellers, just like the Wild West gunslinger who never sits with his back to the door has been conditioned. No need to explicitly train attitudes to personal space, just make the Tube the easiest route to work.

There’s an obvious self-directed extension of this. When you want to change your own behaviour, perhaps don’t attempt to train yourself directly. Instead set up an environment which encourages the desired behaviour, and let the environment do the training.

Looking back with anger

Remembrance day for me is always a mix of sadness and anger, though the official ceremonies mostly stick to sadness. Every year at school we would stand through the reading of the names of the dead, honouring the sacrifice of boys who went straight from school into war. Never expressed was any condemnation of the people who sacrificed them.

The ratio of sadness to rage perhaps depends on how inevitable you think the First World War. If you believe there had been a chance to avoid the war, then you can only be furious at the system and the people who let it happen.

I cling to the belief that it could have been avoided. And in general, my default assumption is that everything is fixable until proven otherwise. This is as more psychological self-protection than reasoned analysis. Were the current state of the world something to be endured rather than changed, I’m not sure how I would be able to get out of bed in the morning.

This year, awful as it is, has given me more reason to believe in the possibility of change. Coronavirus in Europe has played out the way it did as the result of political failures and political choices. Some of them are structural, some are one-off mistakes by individuals. And we aren’t living in the worst timeline – other political choices could have brought us into an even worse situation. But it didn’t have to happen like this, and it doesn’t need to continue happening like this.

The real heroes of the first world war are the mutineers of Kiel, the German sailors who turned on their officers, sparked uprisings in the major cities, and so made it impossible for Germany to continue fighting. Eighteen months earlier, a mutiny had seized almost half of the French army. Imagine what better world we could be living in, if they had succeeded!