The Physics of Flow - Your job is to leap! (part 1 of 5)

Your Job is to Leap

Matt was on a river rafting trip, and his boat stopped for lunch in an area near some rocks. People were jumping from the rocks into the water and having fun. Matt was hesitant to do it because it looked like there were jagged rocks below and one could get sucked into a dangerous downstream area. When he mentioned this to the guide, the river guide said, “Your job is to leap, because once your feet hit the water the flow will carry you safely into the current and downstream.”

Immediately Matt recognized what he was being called to do. Without hesitation he climbed up the rock and leapt into the water. And that wasn’t the end: he jumped over and over, caught up in the exhilaration of the flow.

Matt’s outdoor experience reflects a principle that can help us in other areas of life. My interest as a physicist is to investigate the physics of flow, because I have seen that it can make an enormous difference in the levels of satisfaction, quality of life, and success that we achieve in all of our undertakings. Being able to get into a mindset of flow can enhance the harmony in our relationships, paving the way for better family dinners or for more successful board meetings. Flow can lower stress by helping us determine what to work on next, when to push harder and when to let go. Flow can help us adapt quickly to shifting landscapes by aligning ourselves with circumstances while maintaining a focus on our goals. Flow can show us how to navigate complex situations by steering us through the crowd even if we don’t have all the information we think we need. What’s more, flow is a state with a significant amount of research behind it, potentially related to the fields of psychology, neurochemistry, and, as I will introduce here, physics.

Flow is a state of being where we naturally and ease-fully determine what task we should tackle next. When we are in a state of flow, we will be absorbed in a task until we naturally sense that it is time for another task. In the flow, each thing has its timing. To try to do a project before it is ready to be started, or to push it further than it is ready to go, is to miss the flow.

You have probably had the experience of flow many times in your life, maybe even many times each day. For me it often happens late at night when my planning brain slows down and my creative brain gets absorbed into reading a book or writing an article, working on learning a song or studying a new technique on my instrument. Instead of the chatter in my head about priorities, when flow sets in all I hear is my own curiosity about what I may learn or create next. Although my task list is created with the intent of making me successful, it is often the new tasks I discover when I am in flow that propel me forward into new, more successful areas.

The current science of flow

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book on flow states, (M. Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Harper & Row (1990)) he says that while one is in a state of flow, “one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life … Enjoyable activities require a complete focusing of attention on the task at hand—thus leaving no room in the mind for irrelevant information.” Flow is intimately tied to the focus of our attention. Csikszentmihalyi continues, “Because most jobs, and home life in general, lack the pressing demands of flow experiences, concentration is rarely so intense that preoccupations and anxieties can be automatically ruled out.” We can therefore seek for flow states by seeking to give our focused attention to the task at hand. This allows the concern about doing the job “just right” to fall away from our minds.

As a result of Csikszentmihalyi’s work, many researchers have focused on the changes in our brain state that lead to greater focus and the inhibition of our inhibitions. The assumption is that optimal actions in the world originate from a heightened mental state. (C. J. Limb, A. R. Braun, Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance (2008)). The importance of environmental factors for achieving these highly creative states has also been studied (T. M. Amabile, et al, Affect and Creativity at Work, In the research of Limb and Braun at Johns Hopkins University, when jazz musicians improvise it is found that they enter into a flow state in which various functions of the prefrontal cortex related to self-censure are inhibited. This is likely why, when we can’t seem to find flow in our daily activities, it is often a result of analyzing our circumstance with the prefrontal cortex and trying to “decide” what to do next. Often, the indecision centers around thoughts of self-critique originating in the prefrontal cortex. Consider what it is like when we can’t decide what to wear. This is sometimes a result of predicting what others may say about the way we look. When we feel stuck, our prefrontal cortex is often stuck between various bad options, all of them originating in self-critique. When we drop those cognitive processes, we enter into flow.

The research on the psychological components of flow in artists, athletes, and other high intensity performers is compelling. But this treats the world outside as a static canvass, and ignores the possibility that the environment is also responsive to our actions. Is it possible that when we enter into flow, we actually experience different circumstances than we would have otherwise? To fill this gap, I will show how what we know of physics may lead to a “responsive universe,” such that the choices we make are reflected in the external circumstances that appear. Flow is then not simply a matter of our internal psychological interpretation of events (i.e. a positive outlook) but a state of being which can influence events outside of ourselves. In this model, a flow state emerges when we align with the environment, and then find that the environment also aligns with us.

Finding Flow

Giving our focused attention to the task at hand is not always easy to do. Much of the time the task may feel repetitive and predictable, such that we can squeeze by with hardly a thought. Going to work on the subway is routine, and so there does not appear to be magic in each moment, nor the need to concentrate. Yet my research indicates that meaningful events can happen at any time. This is where the physics of flow becomes relevant. Flow can be seen as a result of the continual experience of small coincidences that lead us along a meaningful path. To be in the flow is to allow ourselves to be led by these coincidences. The specific definition of “meaning” in this context will be addressed in the second installation of this series. For the present, think of meaning as a constellation of seemingly unrelated events that relate to a common purpose. Let’s say I need to complete the painting of my house and the person I have scheduled to help cancels at the last minute. But then, not resisting this change, I continue with the project and find that three other people suddenly become available and the job is completed effortlessly. The timing of these three other people becoming available is a meaningful coincidence.

These small meaningful coincidences are what Carl Jung called “synchronicity.” (C. G. Jung, “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” Routledge, East Sussex (1955)) My work as a physicist has been to develop the process of “meaningful history selection” (S. Nelson-Isaacs, “Guiding Quantum Histories With Intermediate Decomposition of the Identity,” to understand synchronicity, and therefore also gain insight into the process of flow. Meaningful history selection indicates that quantum mechanics may be involved in determining which events occur in our lives. First, this process provides a mathematical definition of what a “meaningful” experience is, and then it shows that more meaningful events have a higher likelihood of occurring than less meaningful ones. Meaningful events can happen to us at any time, all the time, whether at a wedding (where we might expect them) or on the subway (where we might not). The proposed physics of flow rigorously connects Csikszentmihalyi’s idea that flow steers us toward the optimum task with a mathematical understanding of how this may be so.

Physics, synchronicity and flow

The Possibility Tree full with Apples vB.png

How does it work? Based on a compilation of various interpretations of quantum mechanics, (R. B. Griffiths, Consistent Quantum Theory; N. D. Mermin, Am. J. Phys. 66 (9), p. 753 (1998); C. Rovelli, Int. J. Theor. Phys. 35 (8), p. 1637 (1996)) meaningful history selection says that the process of making decisions in our lives moves us along the branches of a tree of possibilities, or the “wave function” which contains information about all the possible circumstances that could arise. The intentions we set determine what sorts of apples are populated on the tree of possibilities. Are we investing in our career? This defines a certain set of apples. Are we investing in our relationships? This leads to a different set of apples. We are always in pursuit of an apple, a desired outcome, whether we consciously realize this or not. Then, when we take an action, it spreads outward onto the future branches and determines where the apples are. If our action is in alignment with our intention, then we populate the tree with apples we actually want. The apples make some branches “heavier,” so that branches with more apples have a higher probability of happening. Therefore, as we navigate the branches, the events which occur will tend to be those which lead us toward more apples.

Because all the events in the tree of possibilities are interconnected or “correlated,” there are “threads of meaning” running through the events of our lives all the time. At any moment, a meaningful event can occur which redirects us toward a group of apples. This could involve meeting a stranger on the train who becomes a friend, or missing our station altogether and having to walk a different route, only to find what becomes our new favorite coffee shop. Instead of thinking that most of life’s experiences are mundane and can be tuned out, meaningful history selection implies that “signs of redirection” can occur at any point along our journey. Our best bet is to concentrate fully on the task at hand, for then we can be redirected along the most meaningful branches of the tree. This is precisely the experience of flow, but viewed from the perspective of fundamental physics.

The Benefits of Flow

So there are two major benefits to the flow state. For one, based on physics, we may be more likely to be redirected by circumstances toward the most meaningful outcomes in our life. Secondly, according to Csikszentmihalyi, when we enter into the state of flow, we are naturally able to “forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.” We become more effective at our tasks and more satisfied with the events of our lives.

To find the flow, we must give ourselves to the task at hand. In some moments, this may mean carving away distractions like checking email or paying bills in order to focus on a creative task. At other moments, it may mean surrendering to the obstacles that present themselves, like when we are installing a washing machine and suddenly realize we have the wrong part to connect it to the wall. Incorporating this obstacle into our flow and dedicating ourselves to solving this new problem can allow us to remain in the flow.

There are many practical applications where being in flow can be beneficial. In this series of articles I examine the physics principles that may underlie flow, how flow can help us manage obstacles, and how to more easily find flow in our lives. I will discuss why approaching our lives from a state of flow has benefits for each of us personally, and is also crucial for evolving the way we interact in relationships, in organizations and in politics. In this way, flow can be seen as a new way for society to operate which brings harmony at many levels.