23
Sep
09

flow state

Flow as defined by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes an optimal mental state someone where a person is totally occupied with a task requiring active concentration that matches their skill, being neither too hard (leading to anxiety or worry) or easy (leading to boredom or apathy) for them.  To achieve flow, a majority of the following must be true.

  1. That the activity involved is challenging but the individual has a suitable level of skill to perform well; that there is balance between the activity and the competent performance of it.  Too little skill leads to anxiety and apathy, too little challenge leads to apathy, boredom and lack of engagement.
  2. That the activity has clear goals and is inherently rewarding.  Feedback is immediate so the individual can change their approach or behaviour.  The individual knows what is expected and what to do next.
  3. The individual feels a sense of personal control over the activity even though they are not necessarily in control of the events around the activity or it’s dependencies.
  4. Action and awareness merge so that individual focus is restricted to the performance of the activity leading to a loss of self-consciousness about external presentation.  The activity becomes autotelic, it is done for the sake of the activity rather than focusing on an externalised goal.  It is what it is.
  5. Concentrating on the activity prevents external events from distracting the individual – unease leading to anxiety and potential depression caused by these events cannot enter while focused on the activity and hence there is no sense of failure, just a sense of what needs to happen next.
  6. A change in how subjective time is perceived by the individual performing the activity.  Time will often pass at an accelerated rate during periods of flow activity.

Often flow is accompanied by a sense of personal enjoyment and as the activity itself is intrinsically rewarding, it will encourage people to come back to it.  Building flow into a play environment was one of the original applications Csikszentmihalyi envisaged using the following things:

  • Charts and graphs – Including those showing flow and generally processing information.
  • Project summary – Purpose and intent.  Why are we here again?
  • Craziness – You have to have it to work here.
  • Safe place – Where all may say what is otherwise only thought without comeback or recrimination.
  • Result wall – Where it’s going.
  • Open topics

This sounds like a modern forum or bulletin board rather than a playground yet I can see how flow would be promoted here. Inhibitors of flow state include anxiety (blocking focus by eroding confidence and aptitude) and impatience (blocking focus by – ooh shiny!) which may explain why some people have difficulty getting into a game-flow or have difficulty following certain stories.  Achieving flow requires time and patience and finding the balance between balance and aptitude is going to vary for different people.

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