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The Physics of Flow

A multi-part series by Sky Nelson-Isaacs

Part 1: What Is Flow?

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 climbing 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.

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.

Finding flow

We can understand what flow is by examining what it is like when we are not in a state of flow. These can be times when we are mentally analyzing what we should do next, caught up in trying to do the right thing. In this state, we might have a vision of how things are supposed to go, and we feel frustrated by obstacles that arise.

Behind this frustration often lies a set of thoughts in our mind about what will happen if we don’t resolve this obstacle. When we are not in a state of flow, we feel like everything hinges on being able to complete our project as expected. We might be end up being criticized, or losing money, or finding ourselves less safe if we cannot complete the task. These internal thoughts raise our stress level and make us less capable of solving our problem. In order to avoid the consequences that these thoughts foreshadow, we feel we must gain control of the situation and “do things right.”

On the contrary, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 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.

This is not always easy to do. Much of the time the task at hand 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. Let’s say I need to complete the painting of my house and the person I have scheduled to help is unable to make it at the last minute. By not resisting this, I allow a state of flow 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.” My work as a physicist has been to develop the process of “meaningful history selection” 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, meaningful history selection 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 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

How does it work? 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 an apple. 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 the experience of flow, as viewed from the perspective of fundamental physics.

The Benefits of Flow

So there are two major benefits to the flow state. For one, we are 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. These two benefits lead to many practical applications of being in flow. In this series of articles I examine why approaching our lives from a state of flow has benefits for each of us personally, but is also crucial for evolving the way we interact in relationships, in organizations and in politics. In the process, I describe current research into our understanding of fundamental physics that may help us understand the nuts and bolts of flow.


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The Physics of Flow

A multi-part series by Sky Nelson-Isaacs

Part 2: Flow and Meaning

Testing the Flow

In my physics masters program, I had a friend named Jonas. We had talked about my research on meaningful coincidences a few times, but he was skeptical, as any physicist should be.

During our last semester, he was waiting to hear back from PhD programs that he had applied to. It turned out he was accepted at a great school, but it was in a very expensive town and was a long drive from his family. The school which he really wanted to attend had put him on the waitlist. This was an urgent concern, because the school he wanted was near his home, and would allow him to survive on a much smaller budget and be close to his family.

I gave him the advice I generally offer around finding more synchronicity in life. I said, “Act like you really, really want it, even if you think it can have no effect. Maybe drive to campus and seek out the right person to talk to. If you can't find the right person, just talk to anyone there you meet, and see what connections you make. Read papers by professors on campus you might want to do research with. Take initiative and be directed, but remain open-minded.” The idea is that his intentions determine what apples appear on the tree of possibilities, and the actions he takes shift the landscape of branches on the tree of possibilities to make the arrangement of apples more “meaningful,” or uneven. This means he can gradually build momentum toward his goal if he ends up on branches which have more apples on them.

He was appreciative, but it seemed obvious that he didn’t believe any of that would work. After all, the university he was applying to was an institution with clear policies and procedures. It was his previous preparation, not his post-perspective, that would get him in.

Time passed and it seemed unlikely that they would offer him a spot. Then at the end of the week in class he had a big smile on his face: he had gotten in at the last minute! He told me he had acted on my advice and had called the school, and amazingly it turned out that the acting head of the physics department had gone to school with Jonas' dad’s thesis advisor. It was a natural fit.

Let me be clear, Jonas’ success was a result of his years of hard work to prepare himself for their program. He earned it. Could we prove that his retroactive steps had made a difference? Maybe we could run the experiment again and compare the outcome he actually achieved with a parallel version in which he didn’t reach out to the school. In fact, physics forbids this. Quantum mechanics says that “contrafactual questions” like “what would have happened if…?” are not meaningful, because Nature truly doesn’t have an answer to that question! This is a result of the well-documented behaviour of quantum systems that their properties don’t actually have a definite value before they are measured. Without our interaction, nothing has a definite form. Therefore, how can we say what they would have been if something different had happened?

Instead, what we typically do in science is to run a collection of nearly identical experiments, with the presumption that if we control all the necessary variables the experimental results between each experiment should be comparable. But in the case of Jonas getting into school this seems impossible because the circumstances are unique to that moment. Which circumstances would we try to repeat? We could run an experiment which tracked 100 students applying to college, waiting to get in on the waitlist. But Jonas’ situation was much more specific, involving his particular need to be close to his family and be in a more affordable area.

It is not the specific circumstances, but the meaning or relation of the circumstances, which define Jonas’ situation. We could just as well test a circumstance where he is applying for a job or trying to find a way home from school on the bus. The elements in common are his genuine, urgent need for a particular outcome and his decision to take an action to obtain it. We need to design an experiment that controls for the meaning rather than the particular circumstances of the situation.

The Physics of “Meaning”

I suspect that Jonas’ experience was a result of synchronicity and flow. By taking steps toward his goal, he stepped into the flow and invited small coincidences (like the department head being someone in his social circle) which lubricated the path for his successful acceptance into the program he wanted. These small coincidences are characterized by the meaning they reflect, by which I am referring to how well they distinguish branches with apples from branches without apples. In the diagram, the left branch contains more apples and therefore has a statistical weight of 82%. The particular grouping of apples drawn here is quite “meaningful,” whereas an arrangement with equal weight on both sides would be “unmeaningful.”

I suspect that synchronicities are quantum ‘correlations,’ which means they are not something we are causing. Rather, we align ourselves with circumstances and amazingly we find that circumstances tend to align with us. Novel circumstances unfold which align well with the actions we are taking in our life. Because the question “would it still have worked out if I hadn’t done that?” is meaningless in physics, we cannot say that Jonas causes the head of the department to be a particular person with a particular history. Instead, Jonas takes an action (at the trunk of the tree) which “projects” onto all the future possibilities (top branches of the tree), and those future possibilities that align with his action grow an apple on them. By “aligning,” we mean (loosely speaking) those outcomes in which he got into the school. To be more precise, “aligning” is achieved by an “inner product” which compares the arrangement of all possible objects in a given future possibility, such as the department head and Jonas’ dad’s thesis advisor and who the other names on the waitlist are, with the action taken by Jonas. The branches of the tree which have arrangements that involve a spot being available for Jonas are the ones which “align” and grow apples.

Then the branches with apples become more likely to happen. As a result, the circumstance where he has a personal connection to the head of the department becomes more likely, since it is one history of events (E1) which led to the more probable outcome. By taking an action toward something (at the base of the tree), any outcome that is aligned with that action becomes more likely (e.g. the left hand darker branch), and therefore any history of other objects (e.g. E1) which leads to a successful experience of that outcome becomes more likely.

Jonas was able to select out the most meaningful history “after the fact” because of READ, or Retro Event Activity Determination. READ is a mathematical result from quantum physics that is an extension of the idea that properties don’t actually have a definite value before they are measured. Because Jonas had not interacted with the head of the physics department, the properties of those circumstances were not fixed in place or definite. When Jonas picked up the phone and made the connection, he interacted with the department head and specific properties of Jonas’ environment fell into place. The various past histories of the department, such as a history in which a different person had been selected department head that year (E2), or a history in which this department head had had a terrible falling out with Jonas’ dad’s thesis advisor (E3, not shown), were all possible prior to Jonas making the phone call. But when he makes the extra effort to connect with the school, the circumstances that aligned with his action (E1) were more likely to fall into place. The set of events leading up to that coincidence are retroactively determined, and their probability is influenced by the action Jonas took.

Jonas thanked me for the advice, and I said “Thanks to synchronicity!” Jonas replied, “Normally I would disagree with you, but in this case…”

The Physics of Flow

A multi-part series by Sky Nelson-Isaacs

Part 3: Flow Solves Problems

The Mechanism of Obstacle Creation

The experience of obstacles in the pursuit of our goals, and the associated frustration, is something everyone can relate to. Obstacles show up in every aspect of our life (taking kids to school, getting new clients, carrying a table from the living room to the dining room, finding a new apartment, buying plane tickets), and it is natural that our chief desire is to avoid them. The automatic response is to cringe when an obstacle becomes apparent, since by definition an obstacle gets in the way of something we felt we needed to accomplish. Obstacles inevitably have consequences, sometimes minor and sometimes significant, that can affect us in many ways. The obstacle Jonas faced in not getting into his preferred graduate school could have had far-reaching consequences on both his personal and professional life. He would have been farther from his family, graduated with greater debt, and may have had a different career trajectory. Our emotional aversion to obstacles is therefore reasonable and it is instinctive to seek to avoid them.

I suspect that the physics underlying meaningful history selection is, in fact, designed to bring obstacles into our path. Why would such a system exist? What possible benefit could there be to an existence which is designed to obstruct our flow? I will discuss two possible reasons for this, one in the story below, and one in the next section.

In my experience, it seems that obstacles are sometimes a means to greater satisfaction. Think about the most rewarding things you have accomplished in your life. For me, maybe it was partnering with my wife to bring our daughter into the world when we were confronted with issues of infertility. Having Eliana in our lives all feels very familiar now, so it is easy to forget that the experience involved many obstacles. For example, the timing of one of our crucial doctor’s appointments had to happen at the same time as a family trip with my in-laws. We wanted to do both, but we couldn’t know the exact date of the appointment until the week before the trip, and so we had to carefully navigate the calendar and the family dynamics to prepare for each possible circumstance. It was a very stressful situation for us, but the vacation ultimately worked out smoothly because we were able to follow the flow. Each step happened in alignment with each other step and, amazingly, the timing worked out in a way that could not have been predicted in advance.

Later in the process we chose to try in-vitro fertilization, for which we knew we would need to take money out of our life savings. Feeling the uncertainty in the stock market at that time, we withdrew money in advance in order to ensure we had the resources to complete our life dream. This was the fall of 2008, and shortly after we withdrew our money the Great Recession hit. That cash, and our ability to conceive our daughter, would have vanished had we not followed the flow and trusted our instinct.

What role did these obstacles serve? The obstacles we faced helped us to develop our commitment to our goal, and deepened our readiness to have a child. We will never take for granted the existence of Eliana in our lives because we recognize how lucky we are to have her. This is not only true in personal experiences. Every business owner will attest that success comes as a result of navigating the obstacles that one is presented, for what business isn’t fraught with difficulties as part of its daily existence? It seems clear that obstacles can sometimes serve the purpose of increasing our capacity as human beings and galvanizing us to accomplish those tasks which we deem most important.

I suggest that, through meaningful history selection, we experience obstacles specifically designed to help us grow in ways that are useful to us. Not all possible paths involve a particular obstacle, but those that do are preferentially selected based on the particular choices that we make. They are branches on the tree that, counter-intuitively, lead to more apples, because they help us grow in ways that make us more likely to accomplish our apple-goals in the future.

For instance, if I look a little deeper in myself, I did not only have the short-term goal of conceiving a child, but also the long-term goal of having a good parenting experience and creating an amazing person. In the beginning, I was not totally sure I wanted to be a parent. The obstacles we experienced developed our will, deepened our resolve, and cemented our commitment to that path. The branch of the tree that we ended up on may lead, years in the future, to many apples that satisfy my longer-term goals as a parent, precisely because of the way that I changed in the process.

Even if we are not consciously choosing our goals, meaningful history selection still brings us events which are needed for our growth. In that case, the events will tend to seem more random, since we are not really aware of the choices we are making. Yet we are always choosing something.

If I am choosing to focus on my work and family, but not focusing on my health, meaningful history selection predicts that I will be more likely to experience challenges related to health, such as being asked to lift a box and suddenly having my back get thrown out. I can begin to predict where I will experience obstacles by noticing where I am not spending my energy, for this area of my life is bound to invite trouble.

The Mechanism of Obstacle Resolution

The tendency of meaningful coincidences to bring us obstacles might seem like a masochistic system were it not for the second proposal: meaningful history selection also provides us the mechanism to resolve the obstacles we are presented. This is where flow comes in.

In the case of the doctor’s appointment we couldn’t miss, the timing was dependent on my wife’s cycle. The trip, too, had various complicated decision points, where there were two or three different ways the trip could unfold depending on the time of arrival of the others in the group. All of these factors were out of our control, and we had to rely on the synchronized flow of circumstances to allow it all to happen.

As another example, consider my recent experience at a restaurant. We are moving houses, and so in addition to wanting to save money in a time of transition, we are also not able to cook in our empty kitchen. We went out to pizza. Eliana prefers cheese pizza, and hates mushrooms, but none of the adults wanted cheese pizza. In order to not waste money on an entire cheese pizza, we asked the waiter to customize one of the mushroom pizzas to be cheese-only on half the pizza. Then the obstacle presented itself: the waiter heard “cheese, only on half the pizza,” and brought us a pizza with mushrooms on the whole thing and the cheese removed from half the pizza! We had now waited for 25 minutes, had a tired child on our hands, and nothing she would eat.

Flow resolved this for us. We mentioned that this is not what we had intended to order. The waiter responded graciously and immediately ordered a cheese-only pizza for Eliana at no charge. He also offered to remake our mushroom pizza since it was missing cheese on half, but when we told him we were fine eating it, he simply took it off our bill. In the end we had a delicious meal, for half the cost, without the stress that can often arise when things don’t go our way.

Referring back to Part 1, we see both benefits of flow present in this example. My original intention in not ordering Eliana her own pizza was to avoid wasting money on food that would not be eaten, and by living in flow we were directed toward an outcome which matched the goal. Additionally, as Csikszentmihalyi predicts, I was able to forget about the unpleasant aspects of the experience (tired daughter, grumpy waiter, long wait time) by surrendering into the flow. Instead of a stressful experience, it was a pleasant dinner even in the midst of obstacles.

Problems That Lead to Solutions

I am reminded of a quote from the Yogic teacher Satchidananda, saying “soap is the dirt we mix with other dirt so that both dirts wash away.” In my case, flow helped me solve a problem by bringing me a problem, and then allowing them both to get resolved. If I had chosen to have him remake our mushroom pizza as well, an entire pizza would have been wasted and we would not have received the benefit of a cheaper meal.

Just as it is said that a poisonous plant in nature usually grows nearby to its antidote, we can also expect that nearby to an obstacle may be growing the possibility of its resolution. What is required is to look past the circumstance and focus on the meaning of the situation. When the waiter misunderstood our order, I was not thinking about his mistake and blaming him for not listening carefully. I was trying to see within the obstacle what lesson it was carrying for me. In doing so, I didn’t block the flow, and circumstances were able to unfold which were actually beneficial to me. In order to get to my goal (saving money on the meal), an obstacle had to first get in the way (a misunderstood order).

We see, then, two ways in which obstacles can benefit us. One is that they can prepare us to become ready for some bigger challenge or deeper experience. The other is that they can actually be necessary circumstances which lead toward the ultimate outcome we are after.