The Source of Flow & The Battle of the Bottleneck

The Source of Flow & The Battle of the Bottleneck

Somewhere in Guatemala - Yanuary Navarro

To protect one source of profound happiness, you need to know how your brain creates it. A brain surgeon explains.

As humans, we seem to be on an endless quest to rid ourselves of a conscious awareness of our selves, our egos, and their constant internal chatter that separates us from the immediacy of experience. Whether it is the discipline of zazen meditation, the transcendence of the whirling dervish, or the clash of football teams, we are drawn to states of mind that allow us to lose our self-awareness. Usually, we have gone to great pains to acquire the skills and knowledge to induce these states, and they emerge from activities about which we feel passionate. In the 1970s, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, now at the Claremont Graduate University, began to explore and map these experiences in detail. He gave them the name flow.

Surprisingly, Csikszentmihalyi found that flow states are nearly three times as likely to occur at work as during our leisure time. In fact, leisure pursuits, such as watching TV or lounging at the beach, are unlikely to give rise to flow. Most of us, on average, score ourselves less happy or motivated in our workplace and yearn for more free time, but it is work and not relaxation that is far more likely to offer opportunities for flow.

More important, Csikszentmihalyi found that we are generally very happy in flow states. He pointed out:

In a sense, flow is what drives this human need for going beyond what we have. In creativity or optimal experience, I have found that it is always a struggle, and the struggle has to do with essentially opening yourself up and yet delving deeply into yourself. . . . So I see flow as a very important dynamic in the evolution of complexity. It gives you the incentive, the motivation, the reward for going beyond what you have.

So flow states are the stuff of happiness and creative achievement. Flow reminds us of the profound difference between pleasure and enjoyment. Of the qualitative difference between meeting our expectations in social or material ways versus exceeding our expectations in creative ways and being able to attempt the unexpected, reaching what lies beyond the fingertips of our reach, the edge of our capabilities.

That ability finds itself seriously endangered in the 21st century. With our eyes scanning emails, MP3s pouring through ear buds into our auditory canals, while we send text messages and post blogs, our brains are using up their precious processing powers in ways that make flow unlikely. But the problem goes deeper that that. We know so much more about how the brain works, and that knowledge is being exploited to capture our flow.

Flow states are the stuff of happiness and creative achievement. Flow reminds us of the profound difference between pleasure and enjoyment. 

Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, recently explained its driving goal: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you . . . more likes and comments.” 

The end result—as even Parker is now warning about— is not flow but anxiety and depression. Of course, people have been trying to grab our attention since the first baby cried, but now that Silicon Valley is waking up to the perils of its vast ability to manipulate our attention, we should look again at the fundamentals of flow: where it comes from, and why.

The Evolution of Flow

Flow states are dependent on our ability to train our attention to select specific details out of our sensory experience. For example, the Inuit Eskimos have more than 30 words and expressions to describe every quality of snow: from the size of the snow particles, to how the snow falls, to what kinds of formations the snow makes, to the qualities of the crust on top of the snow. So, say an Inuit hunter is about to set off on a seal hunt to feed his family: The objective of the hunt shapes this attention, his focus on certain details. This attention, in turn, defines his awareness of his environment. He pays attention to the details of the time of year, the migrations of sea life that might affect where and when his prey may appear. His attention preferentially shapes the sensory information he gathers and the way his brain organizes and interprets it. His awareness controls what he experiences and that, as a result, determines his consciousness as a hunter, fully embedded in a complex environment where you and I would be simply lost in snow. 

The hunter’s chance of success—and indeed all flow states—depends on the individual’s acquisition of skill sets through repetitive practice. It is our past experiences that allow us to differentiate what is or is not germane to our objectives or expectations. The more past experiences we acquire, the greater our skill set, and the richer our self, our ego, becomes. The stage is then set for a cycle of ever-increasing skills and ever-ascending challenges. We refine and differentiate our skills while adjusting and fine-tuning the unique capacity of our perceptions and abilities. For the seasoned Inuit hunter, that means that when the children are hungry and food is scarce and the weather conditions are impossible, all the noises go quiet and he can perform what amounts to a miracle with a simple spear.

When the right set of challenges meets the right set of skills, the product of the flow state becomes the creative synthesis of our modern world. In Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that not only does experience matter in honing our skill set but it must be a sustained, cumulative kind of experience. What emerges from Gladwell’s writings has been termed “The 10,000-Hour Rule”—namely, that to make a significant, new contribution to a field, one must acquire on average 10,000 hours of experience and training. This is required to create a profound awareness of one’s own field, its past, and its current limitations, so as, finally, to have sufficient abilities and knowledge to make a significant impact on the field. 

The task literally pulls so much current, so much of the sensory “juice,” that we lose our self-awareness and we become the task. 

Gladwell recounts the story of the Beatles, who went from a skiffle rock group in 1957 Liverpool to producing the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album just a decade later. What made the difference was likely the grueling schedules the Beatles endured over the course of five trips to Hamburg, Germany, between 1960 and 1962. Their contract to play at local clubs called for them to entertain the customers for eight hours a night for more than 270 nights, amounting to a staggering 1,200 live performances in just 18 months. Phillip Norman, a biographer of the Beatles, commented: “They weren’t disciplined on stage at all before that [i.e., Hamburg]. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”

The Battle of the Bottleneck 

The reason for the 10,000-hours rule—and the magic of flow—lies in the way the brain handles and processes incoming sensory signals. As you know, the brain works both consciously and subconsciously, and far more sensory information is parceled out to unconscious processing than we can possibly handle through conscious means. What you may not know is that anything conscious—every bit of what we know that we know—has to go through a bottleneck called the thalamus. (Each piece of sensory data—a sound, a visual cue, a physical message, a taste on our tongue, or a thought—is actually called a “bit.”) The capacity of the thalamus—the size of the bottleneck—is 126 bits per second. 

The average conversation between two individuals requires about 40 bits per second to process. Listening to two people at once requires 80—leaving only about 4o bits to handle everything else, from the lights in the room to the feel of the chair under you to thinking how much one of the speakers is boring you and your stomach is growling and you wish you could get something to eat. This is why we are stretched to our limit trying to listen to two people converse at once and why it drives us absolutely crazy when someone is talking to us while we are on the phone.

What happens to us in a flow state is the opposite of being driven crazy and is also directly related to this sensory bottleneck. As a challenge calls on more of our skills, we bring a greater focus on it. More and more sensory information is pulled into performing the task and less conscious processing is available for other things. Thanks to the bottleneck, we lose awareness of what is going on around us, of how time is moving, and even of our own thought processes. The task literally pulls so much current, so much of the sensory “juice,” that we lose our self-awareness and we become the task. 

We may refer to this state of mind as “being in the zone,” but what we actually are alluding to is that so much of our focus is brought to bear on our objective that our skills, our motor abilities, all are deferred to subconscious control. This is why the 10,000 hours of experience is so important: Without this enormous repository of experience, derived from cumulative iterations, there is no way we can delegate these tasks—whether hunting a seal or playing like the Beatles—to subconscious control. 

There is no way to effectively increase our brain’s processing capacity: That is something we are stuck with until evolution increases it—at the excruciatingly slow rate of one mutation every 30,000 years. Or eventually, perhaps, there may be some way to enhance our brain’s capacity with engineered implants. In the meantime, we each need to protect our own bottleneck and perhaps turn down the digital noise, to reduce the extent to which we subject our attention to fractionation and distraction. The most important quality of flow may be its ability to allow us for a moment to remove ourselves from the endless barrage of sensory inputs.

Why Multitasking Is Life in the Shallows

We are all at real risk for information overload in the sense that we live in a growing tsunami of available information. In another sense, information overload is irrelevant because the “bottleneck” of the thalamus limits the amount of information we can consciously process—and we process only one thing at a time. You can open all the emails you want—while you chat on the phone, text your friends, and scan the newspaper headlines—but if you think are multitasking, you are wrong. 

A computer can truly multitask by alternating very rapidly between tasks in a fraction of a millisecond—so fast that, as far the human brain is concerned, the tasks are simultaneous. A computer does not care which circuits it has to use. But the brain does. Every time the human brain switches between tasks, there is an allotment of latency or downtime—as much as a third of a second—when you’re aware of nothing at all as attention and activity are moved between different areas of the brain. When a subject is asked to switch back and forth between additional tasks, the downtime grows longer and the error rates climb—which can prove lethal on the highway. Ironically, researchers at Stanford found that so-called heavy multitaskers are less efficient at switching from task to task and do a poorer job collecting information than people who do not routinely multitask. 

The Stanford study was commissioned by Porter-Novell, the public relations firm in London that represented Hewlett Packard. It gave a small group of its own employees various items derived from standardized IQ tests under quiet conditions and the same items while they were answering telephone calls and email messages. The results were that the subjects’ IQ scores dropped from an average of 143.38 to 132.75—which means the effect of multitasking is worse than smoking marijuana or sleep deprivation. 

Finally, a brain imaging study from the University of Sussex, England, found that individuals who used a higher number of multimedia devices at once (e.g., TV on while texting) had lower concentrations of neurons in the anterior cingulate area (ACA), a region of the brain dedicated to assisting in decision-making by providing emotional insight. Why these changes are occurring is unclear, but it may be that multitasking requires individuals to forsake wholehearted dedication to a task—and that wholeheartedness becomes less possible over time because of diminished neuronal development in the ACA. Thus, multitasking could lead to a life lived permanently in the shallows.

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