Explaining Flow

Theory of Flow

From our culture's perspective, flow sounds weird. Or mystical. Or unlikely to really be effective. From our culture's perspective, all important thinking is conscious. There is no unconscious that would be good at playing tennis or pinball. Or, from a Freudian perspective, the unconscious is a storehouse of forbidden desires. There is no reason to put that in charge of playing pinball!

I hope you have a different perspective. You have an Inferential System. From the study of perception and problem solving, we know that it is fast, effective, and can be creative. It is plausible that the Inferential System could play better tennis than consciousness. Or maybe it can't, but that's easy to test. Put your unconscious in charge and see if you perform more effectively; ask people to describe their experiences when they are performing their best and see if their unconscious is in charge.

And of course, the Inferential System passes these tests. I tell you truly, it is extremely unlikely that your conscious brain is better at a sport, craft, or art; almost certainly, your Inferential System is better.

But one more feature of the Inferential System is required to justify flowing.

Suppose I ask you to think of a way of getting to New York. If you attend to this problem for even just a second, your Inferential System will produce an answer. This answer will pop into your consciousness. One of the most important aspects of the Inferential System's answers is that they tend to be a good. You think "flying", or if you are close enough to New York, you think "driving". You do not think "Band-aid". If I ask you to think of a method of protecting a cut, you think of a Band-Aid, not flying to New York. If I ask you to think of a word containing many r's, your will think of something like "purring" or "rarely". These aren't the best possible answers, but they are a lot better than "flying" or "Band-aid".

These "good" answers so consistent in our experience that we take them for granted. But they are essential to flow. The idea in flow is that you have a goal, like making a good serve at tennis. If your Inferential System might produce the answer of "flying", "Band-aid", or "purring", it would not be very reliable and you could not use it for flow. Instead, it produces a good answer. That is why you can count on it when you flow.

The underlying mechanism for producing this good answer was explained in the previous chapter on problem solving. When you flow, you give your Inferential System a goal you want to accomplish. Your Inferential System then has to produce a conclusion consistent with this goal. It does, and any conclusion consistent with a goal is a way of achieving that goal.

Your Inferential System is not perfect, and it can't do miracles. So its conclusion isn't always the best possible conclusion, and sometimes its conclusion doesn't work. Sometimes, your Inferential System can't even produce a conclusion (for example if I give you the problem of getting to Australia in five minutes).

The point is simply that the Inferential System does its best and its conclusion tends to be good. Your consciousness isn't perfect either. And at least for sports, arts, and crafts, your Inferential System tends to be far more effective than your consciousness.

The Very Good First Thought

A study by De Groot (1965) illuminates the Inferential System's ability to construct good alternatives. De Groot investigated why one chess player is better than another. Chess players think of different moves, then evaluate the consequences of these moves -- what the opponent can do in response, what can be done in response to the opponent's responses, and so on. There is a lot of conscious calcuation in chess. Looking at chess players that ranged in ability from local experts to the best in the world, De Groot found that better players did NOT consider more moves, they did NOT look farther into the future, and they did NOT consider more possible responses by the opponent.

Then why were they better? The main difference De Groot found between players of different abilities was in the ability to think of good moves. The better the chess player, the better the move the player selected to evaluate. In one very hard problem, no one except grandmasters (the highest ranking for chess players) even thought of the best move. And the best player in the world thought of that move first!

So, everyone's first thought tends to be good. That's how the Inferential System works. But the quality of that first thought depends on experience and talent. At the extreme, the conclusion from the Inferential System can be brilliant. But we already knew that -- the best insights of scientists and mathematicians are produced by the Inferential System.

Advantages of Using the Inferential System

There are several reasons why your Inferential System is good at sports, arts, and crafts. First, your Inferential System is fast. As will be discussed, conscious reasoning is not. This speed is often useful at sports. Suppose a tennis ball is hit towards you. You don't have time to think of all the different ways you might get to the ball and hit it, or all the different places you might hit it to. Instead, you have to act quickly.

Your Inferential System is also adaptive. If I ask you to think of a way to get to New York, and you live in Omaha, you probably think of flying. But suppose you flew from Omaha to Newark and were staying at a hotel in New Jersey, a few miles from New York. Your friend then asks you, "How should we get to New York?" Your brain does not immediately think of flying, because it knows you're in New Jersey. Instead, it takes into account the situation you are in and suggests something like taking a bus or train. Thus, your Inferential System knows and responds to the details of the situation you are in.

Consciousness can avoid the problem of speed by planning ahead. To give a simple example, if you are playing tennis and someone is serving to you, you can plan where you will return the ball to. But planning ahead is not adaptive -- it cannot take into acount factors that changed after you made your plan. For example, your plan of how to return a serve cannot take into acount the details of the serve, such as exactly where the serve is going to, and it cannot take into account where your opponent moves to after serving.

To give another example, once I was sailing with my father and he asked me which of two starts we should try. I knew nothing about sailing, so I was clueless. But I suggested waiting until closer to the start of the race to decide. As it turned out, the wind changed directions just before the start of the race and a third type of start became the best choice. If I had chosen a particular start in advance, my father might have been focused on making that start and not thought of the unusual start.

As noted in the previous chapter, the Inferential System is a very important source of creativity. Creativity is important in arts and crafts. For example, the composer must be creative for the composition to be of any value. Creativity is also important in sports -- in a sense, every situation is new, so the best possible response to a situation must also be new.

Your Inferential System can use all of the available information. As discussed in the chapter on perception, your Inferential System has access to all incoming perceptual information. Meanwhile, your consciousness has access only to what you specifically attend to. For example, if you are deciding where to hit a tennis ball, you should take into account where your opponent is standing. Your Inferential System can do this even if you don't even consciously realize this information is important.

Of course, your consciousness can also use this information, if you consciously attend to it. Your consciousness can also use the information about which way the tennis ball is spinning, if you consciously attend to it. Your consciousness can also use the information about your position in relationship to the ball, if you consciously attend to that. But by now your consciousness is overwhelmed with information. Anyway, your consciousness is too slow to use all of this information. And there is still other important information available that only your Inferential System has access to when you attend to only these three things.

This leads to an important principle of flow. When you flow, you should try to attend to everything that might be relevant. I like to say that you should get "the big picture". That probably optimizes the Inferential System's ability to use all of the information.

Your Inferential System also knows principles that your consciousness doesn't know. This happens all the time in perception, and it happened for my grilled-cheese sandwich intuition. To give another example, once I was playing pinball and made a particular move. Afterwards, I realized that my move made perfect sense if the corner of the pinball machine was curved. However, as I could see, the corner was NOT curved, it was a sharp angle. I looked closer, and I saw a small pin in the machine that functionally made it a curved corner. I didn't know the pin was there. If I had been consciously deciding what to do, I would have made a move appropriate to a sharp corner. I doubt that my Inferential System knew about the small pin. But it knew that corner functioned like a round corner. It knew what worked and what didn't.

Optimizing Use of Your Inferential System

Flow optimizes the use of your Inferential System. First, it puts the Inferential System in charge. To the extent that you are making conscious decisions, your Inferential System is not in charge. So your consciousness doesn't decide what to do, but instead trusts your Inferential System.

Second, as discussed in the previous chapter, all conscious thought is input into your Inferential System. That's okay if the information is useful. But let's think about this. At tennis, you need to know where the ball is, it's speed, where you are, and where your opponent is. But that information is all given perceptually. You don't need to supply that information consciously. Your Inferential System knows the goal is to win. Is there any information your Inferential System needs that it doesn't have? No. And it is the same for any sport, art, or craft. (That's why they are good for flow.)

So anything your conscious is thinking is going to be unneeded, or worse, distracting. So you can avoid all conscious thought and let your Inferential System do everything.

Flow Versus Habit

There is another method of being fast and potentially responding to the given situation, one that also uses unconscious abilities. This is called habit in lay language and automaticity in psychology. (A later chapter of this book will consider habit in more detail.) Flow is not just a matter of following habit. Flow is creative; habits are not. For example, Csikszentmihalyi found that surgeons were more likely to flow in difficult surgeries rather than routine surgeries. Routine surgeries would be ideal for habit; difficult surgeries would not.

Another distinguishing characteristic of habit is that it does not require conscious attention. Flow requires conscious attention -- even though there are no conscious calculations to perform, you must attend closely to your task to flow effectively. If you don't, you will fall into habit.

People overestimate the value of habits in sports. Consider the "simple" act of hitting a golf ball off a tee. This is the best possible situation for habit, because you could -- at least in theory -- always tee up your ball the same way, so the same golf swing could always be effective. Many people believe that the goal is to practice the proper form until it is a habit which can be repeated the same way each time.

But habit would not be effective. Yes, you can't tee up your ball the exact same way each time, but you can come close enough. But you can't stand in exactly the same position every time. And it would be difficult to hold your club exactly the same way every time. As you draw your golf club back, you will never draw it back to exactly the same position. One reason these movements can't be exactly the same is that you are not perfect. Another potential reason is factors you cannot control. For example, you cannot control the wind, which will have some effect when it is blowing. Your muscles also change. Sometimes they are tired and sometimes they are not. They change in flexibilitiy. For that matter, your joints also tend to change during the day, even to the point of influencing your height. (You are tallest when you first wake up.) So not even your height stays the same.

So, there is some ideal swing, which you try to practice until it is a habit. But then there are deviations from this ideal swing. Do you adapt to these deviations? Or do you keep going with the ideal swing and ignore the fact that your situation has changed?

If you are trying to swing your club the same way each time, you won't be compensating for these differences. One feature of habit is that you do not need to pay attention to what your are doing. If you aren't paying attention, you won't even notice the deviations. In contrast, when you flow, your Inferential System has access to the current situation and can try to make the best movement based on the current situation. Of course, that takes practice. But with practice, your Inferential System can learn to be adapt.

This has implications for how you practice. If the goal was to form a habit, you would simply practice the same action over and over again. Attention to your practice would not be important. But if you want to do well, you have to flow. Now the goal of your practice is for your Inferential System to learn. Attention is important. Also, doing an action different ways is useful, because it helps your Inferential System learn.

Similarly, if someone tells you how to perform a movement and your goal is habit, then you would just follow instructions and try to perform the movement as you were instructed. If you are going to flow, it is important that the movement feel right. So you might try to follow the instructions, to see what happens, but your feelings should be the ultimate guide.


If all important thought was conscious, flow wouldn't exist -- how can you behave effectively if you aren't calculating anything? But there is unconscious thought. You have an Inferential System that is fast, accurate, and creative. And in fact, your Inferential System is much better than your consciousness at sports, arts, and crafts. Flow makes optimal use of your Inferential System, and you will never reach your potential at an art, craft, or sport unless you flow.

That does leave the question of exactly how you flow at an activity. On to the next essay!