Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee)’s concept of flow has had a couple of mentions in recent posts, so I thought I ought to catch up on it. Back when I was doing my MA I read a lot about it in relation to museum learning (mostly in Hooper-Greenhill’s primer The Educational Role of the Museum), but some of that was written twenty years ago, so I thought I ought to get up to date. I’m pleased to report that according to his 2009 co-authored paper the basic concepts are still intact, so here goes:

Some years ago, I had a Mac Classic, a black and white 9 inch display all in one computer. I’d bought it with money from the very first Student Loan scheme in the UK. (I’d saved up in advance of going to University and I had a job reading Tarot Cards and doing the I Ching on a premium rate telephone service, so I didn’t need the money to live on.) It’s role was chiefly to write my dissertation on, but “all work and no-play, etc” so I also bought a copy of Sid Meier’s Civilisation. I recall one evening I looked at the clock on a “school night” and saw it was 10.45, so I said to myself “fifteen minutes on Civ, then bedtime”. So I sat down to play a couple of turns, and  I noticed something had gone wrong with the electric light – rather than its warm yellow glow, it was a colder blue. I turned around a saw daylight through the window. It was dawn.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is flow.

Back in the sixties. studying the creative process, Csikszentmihalyi watched an artist at work, and noticed that when everything was going well, “the artist persisted single-mindedly, disregarding hunger, fatigue and discomfort.” He called this intrinsic motivation, and described the activity as autotelic (auto=self, telos=goal). We went on to investigate why people like rock-climbers do what they do, for no apparent (or rather extrinsic) reward. Many of the the people he worked with described feeling as though they were being carried along by the activity, and so the word flow was coined.

He set out two conditions for flow: “a sense that one is engaging challenges at a level appropriate to one’s capacities”; and, “clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made.”

Let’s pause there. I recall very strongly from my MA reading back in 1999/2000 the first of those two conditions – the matching of challenge and ability. I don’t recall so well the thing about feedback. Is that a failure of my recollection, or does the museum literature I was reading stress one and downplay the other? I’ll have to go back and check. I do feel safe to say that while heritage interpretation might offer challenges to meet the level of visitors’ capacities, it may not be as good at offering proximal goals and immediate feedback, except sometimes with personal conversation, for example, in live interpretation.

Given those conditions, Csikszentmihalyi sets out what flow looks like:

  • Intense and focussed concentration on what one is doing at the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor
  • A sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.

If challenge and capability don’t balance, or if neither are high enough, Csikszentmihalyi suggest a range of other emotional states occurs, and set out in this handy diagram (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model. Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding Flow, 1997

Csikszentmihalyi points out that the goal and feedback structures of sports and games can make flow more likely, but any activity can  create flow, which makes me think of the Buddhist term mindfulness, which can come about through as mundane an activity as raking gravel.

I think I’ll be returning to flow as I go forward. It seems to be something that games can get very right, just as Civilisation did for me twenty years ago, but based on the evidence that I’ve never popped into a heritage site for just fifteen minutes and come out six hours later, interpretation still has a lot to learn.

2 thoughts on “Flow

  1. […] So I’ve spent most of the day re-reading bits of Panksepp, Ekman, Lazarro and Sylvester and seeing if each of the models lines up to tell me anything interesting. Along the way I’ve made some other notes. For example  – contentment, relief and satisfaction seem like pretty deepseated emotions that should figure, or have equivalents, in Panksepp’s schema. Where should they go? Are they simply Homeostatic? or are they part of the SEEKING network? Also, a number of things that Lazarro calls “emotions” seem really out of place in this table, are the emotions at all? Or are they behaviours? That said what she calls Schadenfreude, really does seem to fit in the Panksepp’s emotional model – though he doesn’t use that word, he does describe the affect as part of “the dark side of human laughter.” Oh, and I need to see in Panksepp has anything to say about flow. […]

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