NB: Originally published on Map and Territory on Medium. This is an old post originally published on 2016-10-04. It was never previously cross-posted or linked on LessWrong, so I'm adding it now for posterity. It's old enough that I can no longer confidently endorse it, and I won't bother trying to defend it if you find something wrong, but it might still be interesting.
A lot of folks these days talk about “flow” to mean some kind of mystical state where they experience something like automatic decision making where they get out of their own way and just do. Less mysteriously, other folks use “flow” to describe periods of focused attention. More mysteriously, some folks talk about something similar but as the Daoist idea of action through non-action. Let’s see if we can make some sense of what’s going on here.
As far as I can tell we talk about flow because Daoist philosophy explains virtuous behavior (de) as being a mind like water. Chapter 78 of the Daodejing reads:
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
And Chapter 15 reads:
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
Though this is not necessarily the direct lineage of the modern usage, this gives a sense of what metaphors of being liquid-like are trying to imply. In flow a person acts naturally, takes the most direct path, and problems yield before them. It’s reported to feel from the inside like achieving without trying, and also like a full integration of knowledge into action that does what’s intended. This integration is where I think we can get a grasp on what is happening in flow.
I previously explored a 2-dimensional theory of psyche along the dimensions of detail and pattern. In brief, we can model the brain (in part because it now appears it may physically work this way) as operating by giving high or low weight to details and high or low weight to patterns. When details are high and patterns are low, it’s what we might term near construal mode, S1, or the id. When details are low and patterns are high, it’s what we might term far construal mode, S2, or the superego. And when details and patterns are high, it’s what we might term an integrated mode or the ego.
This integration of details and patterns allows a balanced approach to updating and acting on information. Too much focus on detail and there’s an overreaction to specifics that ignores known patterns. Too much focus on pattern and there’s a failure to account for specific circumstances. But it is also not enough to integrate details and patterns: they must be each weighted appropriately to result in confident action.
We know that simply integrating the two is not enough because we experience cognitive dissonance all the time. Admittedly there is cognitive dissonance among competing patterns and among contradictory details, but what I’m focused on here is the disagreement of patterns and details, like in this apocryphal story of a physics class:
The period bell rings and the students shuffle into another day of high school physics. The teacher is standing over by the radiator balancing a 1-inch think metal sheet against it. She asks a student to come up and observe the metal sheet. He looks at it, and at the teacher’s invitation, touches each side of the sheet. To his surprise, the side away from the radiator is hotter than the side toward the radiator! He returns to his seat and the teacher asks the students what’s going on.
“Air currents convecting heat to the far side”, says one student.
“Nope,” says the teacher. “There’s not enough air movement over here to cause that.”
“The metal sheet is made of two metals, a different one on each side, and the far one absorbs heat faster than the one near the radiator,” says another.
“Interesting idea,” says the teacher, “but this metal sheet is definitely all made of the same alloy.”
“MAGNETS!!!” cries a third.
The other students and teacher ignore this one.
After the students have exhausted all their theories and the teacher has shot them all down, they give up. “Tell us, sensei, what is going on here?”
“Simple,” said the teacher, resplendent in the glow of the afternoon sun shining through the window, “I turned the sheet around just before any of you came into the classroom.”
Of course, most real-world situations are not quite so intentionally dubious. Instead we have theories about how our cars work, why our friends say what they say, and what our cats are thinking and then they fail to predict or explain our car problems, our relationship troubles, or the inscrutable actions of our feline companions. We are constantly faced with inconsistencies between pattern and detail and are trying to fix them up. So just because the ego is in control, because we are integrating S1 and S2, near and far, yin and yang, we may still find we aren’t flowing.
So if an integrated thinking mode that combines details and patterns is to explain flow, we’re going to need more than integration alone. Going full ego is not enough. If there is anything here it is probably in how the details and patterns are integrated. This, fortunately and unfortunately, is somewhat well studied but poorly understood or applied, and goes by the name of rationality.
Rationality as a procedure pops up in multiple fields: game theory, economics, psychology, sociology, probability theory, and artificial intelligence to name a few. We can broadly think of it as the optimal way of integrating information that satisfies an arbitrary value function. It’s not exactly so-called “cold logic”, though that is a degenerate case, and fully encompasses anything that most directly approaches “winning” for whatever winning means to you. It looks like Bayes’s Theorem in its pure form, and learning to apply it to your thinking is one of the goals of a classical education.
By applying rationality, i.e. optimal information pumping, to the integration of details and patterns, we describe something that sounds a lot like flow. Details come in (evidence), they are weighted and balanced against patterns (priors), and combined to achieve an updated state that can be read to point to a clear next action. Even under uncertainty flow is possible, with the best possible option floating to the top. The next thought or action comes automatically because it is the best currently available way forward in the present integration.
But flow, to what extent we can find ourselves in it, is easily broken, and our model points to the ways in which it breaks. On one hand, details can be overvalued so that patterns are not sufficiently heeded. We get lost in the moment, forget our better judgement, and act without thinking. On the other, patterns can be overvalued so much so that the details don’t change our minds enough. We get in our own way, give in to fear, and overthink. Rationality, and thereby flow, is easily broken by being out of balance between details and patterns, and it’s only through skilled practice that we can keep our minds like water.
So it seems somewhat useful to think of flow as rational detail and pattern integration. But this explanation seems fail to square with the way most folks talk about what flow feels like from the inside. It’s described as being automatic, doing without trying, and acting through nonaction. People say it feels peaceful to be in flow, time seems to fly by, and the running self-narrative diminishes or stops. This sounds a lot more like a cessation of activity than an optimization of it.
But what is optimization if not a cessation of chaos? Normally the mind feels full of competing systems trying to pull us in different directions. Some people report experiencing their own minds as a conversation between multiple agents, and not just metaphorically but as in they think to themselves as multiple characters in communication. It seems not a coincidence that we describe dynamic systems as quiet and stable when they are working as expected. So it’s perhaps not surprising we should say flow feels like things in our minds are stopping because in a sense they are: they stop causing problems and work together.
So there we have a theory of flow that is based on physiological underpinnings that, while still not proven, provide a reasonable explanation of basic processes that we can use to construct simple, seemingly useful models of more complex mental processes. I’m interested in exploring possible weaknesses I’ve missed in this theory, so comment with your objections and I’ll see if they can be addressed.