States of mind are fluid, and maintaining the right frame of mind is not something that necessarily arises naturally. It requires thought, insight––something akin to the flicking on of a light switch. It can also arise by other means. We’ve all heard the term “being in the zone.” In his well-known book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:
“As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third, and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.”
Put aside for a moment the misapprehension that such a flow state arises easily or spontaneously. In fact, during a normal day reaching this state regularly, or at will, may not necessarily occur. Perhaps one question to ask before starting any reasonably complex task: what circumstances will be necessary to reach a state of flow? It’s probably true that most give no thought to this, and thus rarely seek out those instances where it might arise.
Flow has been historically investigated in sport and exercise for its association with exceptional performance (Jackson et al., 2001; Swann et al., 2018). Commonly defined as a harmonious psychological state, intrinsically rewarding, involving intense focus and absorption in a specific activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 2002; Swann et al., 2018; Stoll, 2019), flow has been contextualized in a framework of challenge-skill balance, clear goals and sense of control (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
Courtroom cases implicate layers of antagonism, interval, and uncertainty. There’s disruption as well as movement back and forth. Also, there are some aspects where one no longer has “a sense of control.” Interestingly, flow is still possible in these instances and can be reached even in the face of adversarial uncertainty. Perhaps it best can be described as improvisation or a kind of on-the-spot refinement of a method. The thought is: to take what’s offered and spontaneously make the best of what’s available.
Optimal psychological experiences, underlying the excellence in performance, have been mainly related to flow or clutch states, typically experienced in contexts of achievement and pressure (Swann et al., 2017a, b). In contrast, flow has been generally described in contexts of exploration and flexible outcomes as well as experiences of enjoyment during the activity and lower perceived effort (Swann et al., 2019). As such, the relationship of flow with performance in exercise has been widely reported in the literature (Dietrich, 2004; Engeser and Rheinberg, 2008; Schüler and Brunner, 2009; Fernández et al., 2015; Ufer, 2017). In this line, the basis of flow has been mostly settled on psychological (Swann et al., 2017a, b; Stoll, 2019), physiological (Dietrich, 2004; Keller et al., 2011; Tozman et al., 2015) and psychophysiological factors (Swann et al., 2012). This research has found evidences of brain inhibition of self-reflective introspection during tasks, self-awareness reduction, focused attention and automatic actions among other effects (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002; Goldberg et al., 2006; Harris et al., 2017).
Perhaps we should ignore flow. By actively seeking it out, it might elude our grasp. Perhaps we should let things occur naturally. Like so many other untaught and neglected skills no one mentions this. Its pathway is not obvious. Nonetheless, typical advice might include: “Keep track of those instances where flow arises.” “Seek out those tasks most likely to give rise to a state of flow.” “Achieve flow in areas not thought possible.” “Practice the habit of flow, keeping it quietly in the background.” Etc.
Flow state has been also described through sensations like lack of weight, lack of fatigue, movement efficiency, and more integratively, as fusion with the environment (Fuentes-Kahal and del Cerro, 2012; Bertollo et al., 2016). In this line, the ecological psychology, and more concretely the ecological dynamics, explains the conscious mind as the very physical relation which emerges at the level of performer-environment system (Araújo et al., 2017). Consequently, phenomenological experiences cannot be understood simply embracing an organism-centered view (Davids and Araújo, 2010).
“The organism-environment duality is probably the most important dichotomy that ecological psychology aimed to overcome.”This notion of a unity between “organism” and “environment” harks back to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of effortless involvement: “Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life…” Exerting control over one’s environment––actually seeking out, and taking steps to create, that unity––may be another easily overlooked step along the way.
Repetition enables a habit to become ingrained. For many, it’s probably possible for flow to become a habit. Flow can best be harnessed and channeled when used in the service of another. And beyond this: is there such a thing as “flow transference” where an optimal state in one actually works to create a similar state in another? It seems reasonable to surmise that its benefit need not be focused onto only a single person. Perhaps this may be flow’s hidden secret–-it may potentially be of value not only to oneself but to others.
Quotations from: Lluc Montull, Pablo Vazquez, Lluis Rocas, Robert Hristovski, Natalia Balague, Flow as an Embodied State, Front. Psychol. 10 January 2020/https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02993
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Pg. 49 (HarperPerennial 1990)
Lorena Lobo, Manuel Heras-Escribano, David Travieso, The History and Philosophy of Ecological Psychology, Front. Psychol. 27 November 2018/https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02228