Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the Evolution of Flow

A certain nephew of my acquaintance recently posted on his Facebook site a series of thoughtful paragraphs about happiness and spirituality that included the challenge, “Try explaining that, evolutionary biologist!”

Actually, at the risk of sounding excruciatingly professorialistic, I will point out here that evolutionary biologists don’t deal with these issues. In fact, since all competent biologists work on the basis of Darwinian premises, the phrase “evolutionary biologist” is repetitiously redundant, like “mathematical mathematician.”

The folks who try to answer questions like the ones Brad poses are 1. evolutionary psychologists and, 2., (my personal favorites) anthropologists.

One very brainy psychologist who knows a lot about the exhilarated state of mind that Brad calls “that in-between place” is Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi

On Top of the World

Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s work is difficult to discuss, mainly because his name is almost impossible to pronounce. Once you get past that, it’s a snap. For me, I can approximate the pronunciation by saying “Chick sent me high” (which sounds kind of like claiming that a mischievous female chef spiked my brownies with a dose of weed).

But that aside, Csikszentmihalyi is famous for introducing the concept of “flow” to the world of science. Flow is an exhilarated state of mind wherein the flowee is faced with challenges that just match his or her capacity to deal with them. In sports, this is sometimes described as being “in the zone,” but, in general, it gives the person experiencing it the sense that the world is where it should be and he or she is right there on top of it. I think this is what Brad means by “that indescribable in-between place.”


En Fran├žais

Dr. Csik writes that, in flow, one loses one’s sense of time and ego as attention is dedicated to the challenges at hand. I suppose you could say that for less immediately pressing challenges, like cutting up onions and carrots for a delicious soup, attention need not be utterly absorbed in the task, but one’s sense of meeting such a handle-able kitchen-based challenge amounts to a kind of flow experience, one that culminates in the satisfaction supplied by the final culinary presentation.

But why should we take such pleasure in these in-between or flow experiences? An anthropological answer would have to be based on identifying the Darwinian advantage provided by the seeking of them. Think of two ancient pre-Homo sapiens hunters whose group is in need of protein. My male bias comes in here as I focus on large game hunters at the expense of female-focused activities like bringing home baskets of mongongo nuts. But for now, with apologies to potential feminist critics, I will proceed with the comparison of two hunters, Zango and Lurch.

Mongongo Nuts

Zango knows “flow.” His serotonin receptors have evolved in such a way that he gets a thrill out of joining up with the other hunters and facing down a water buffalo with his spear. Consequently, he is able to add lots of calories to his group’s meals.

Lurch, on the other hand, is content to sit around the campfire playing with his mongongo nuts. His group would be denied the higher level of food that Zango’s group enjoys. Over time, the Lurch-type brain dies out through natural selection, while Zango and his kin reproduce. You might say that flow was “selected for” in our evolutionary past because it favored those types in whose brains it had, by a series of mutations, found a home.

Of course, evolutionary explanations like this only tell part of the story. Explaining human behavior is an endless challenge, and it's one that sends some people into the exhilaration of flow. And as we attempt to explain, we shouldn't forget that there are endlessly different ways of being human.

People everywhere are in some ways the same, whether Korean, Moroccan, Haitian, Portuguese or whatever. Presumably every normal adult in the world has the capacity to experience flow.

But humans are also different, not only by virtue of individually inherited character traits, but also by virtue of culture. And culture is a very powerful shaper of human behavior. Why do some of my Chinese friends not feel satisfied after a meal (even one with the proper proportions of calories and nutrition) unless it includes rice, noodles or steamed buns? Because their culture, learned from childhood and therefore so deeply instilled as to be second nature, has trained their brains to think of rice, noodles and baozi buns as essential components of a meal.

We don’t just eat food, in other words, we also eat culture – in the form of the symbols that our culture tells us really are food. Sure, a bowl of Special K may provide you with all the calories and nutrients you need for a well balanced meal, but you won’t get my pal Zhang Ming to believe it. His stomach longs for a breakfast of baozi, and preparing and consuming top quality baozi every morning no doubt puts him in a groovy state of flow.

Baozi - Breakfast of Champions