What are the neurological underpinnings of the experience of Flow described by Csikszentmihalyi? Do we know enough about the brain to speculate?
This piece explores the concept of Flow, which I am assuming the reader is already familiar with, since the purpose of this piece is speculative discourse, not instruction. It is not about videogames – when I have finished this exploration, I have some specific points to make in that context, but that will come later. The following pieces may be essential to appreciating my train of thought:
Paragraph six of this piece on videogame difficulty (the paragraph accompanying the graph of flow) describes Flow in a nutshell.
The piece on Why You Play Games is also useful, particularly the brain diagram, and an appreciation for the reward system and the role of dopamine.
This account necessarily takes a reductive view of behaviour. I don't believe that any account of behaviour solely in terms of parts of the brain, neurotransmitters or other reductive elements can ever be complete: one must also take account of the complete experience, and the context of that experience. However, since my express goal is to couple Csikszentmihalyi's psychological observations with a hypothetical neurobiological model, it is necessary to focus on the reductive elements to achieve this goal.
Neurotransmitters and Flow
The Flow channel draws upon three specific concepts: first, there is optimal experience (which is Flow itself) which corresponds with the Flow channel. Second, anxiety, which occurs when the challenges outstrips the skills of the subject. Finally, boredom, which occurs when the skills of the subject outstrip the degree of challenge.
What is the neurology of anxiety? This is easy – the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline) underlies both excitement and fear, with anxiety occurring when the fear centre (amygdala) perceives threat, loss of control or a similar problem.
What is the neurology of boredom? This is trickier – here we are not looking for the presence of particular neurotransmitters but their absence. Psychologists note that depression and boredom are related, which suggests boredom is related to serotonin, which is involved in maintaining a feeling of well-being. But I rather suspect boredom is simply the absence of epinephrine – which is to say, rather obviously, that boredom is the same as the absence of excitement.
If this is the case, then one dimension of the neurology of Flow is simply epinephrine, which is to say, excitement. This makes sense: if an aspect of Flow is engagement, then feeling a certain degree of excitement in a task is potentially a requirement for engagement. This degree of excitement may be very low, or it could be very high – observationally, we can distinguish between the the Flow of a test pilot or racing car driver, the Flow of a crossword puzzle, or the Flow of meditation – each is progressively less exiting than the other, but all are considered examples of Flow.
There must, therefore, be another element, and unsurprisingly the obvious candidate is the neurotransmitter dopamine, the “goal protein” released from the pleasure centre in the brain (nucleus accumbens), which as I discussed on the ihobo site last week seems to be involved in all enjoyable experience. Linking this with Flow is trivial: the very first condition of Flow that Csikszentmihalyi cites is “clear goals”.
Flow is not goal-orientation, the striving to achieve (although it
may include this) since many situations described as Flow are
process-oriented – such as being in control of a vehicle, dancing,
meditation etc. It seems to me from my observation of players that
dopamine is not just released when a goal is achieved, it is also
released when a goal is pursued.
smaller hits of dopamine serve to maintain interest in the long-term
goal that is being chased. I didn't have any evidence of this until I
found this paper by Peter Shizgal and Andreas Arvanitogiannis from the journal Science which describes this exact behaviour in gambling: “a gradual increase in the firing rate of midbrain dopamine neurons in anticipation of uncertain rewards.”
This, then, is my proposed neurological hypothesis for the Flow state: the individual experiences a degree of arousal proportional to the perception of challenge (i.e. excitement). The challenge itself holds out the prospect of reward (i.e. a big hit of dopamine) and this anticipation releases a small amount of dopamine in a continuous flow, helping to maintain interest in the ultimate goal. The achievement of the goal state is essentially anathematic to the Flow state (which is thus inherently process-oriented) it is the pursuit of the goal which produces a steady flow of dopamine and this would then be a candidate hypothesis for the neurology of optimal experience.
The Problem of Meditation
This is a great start, but of course there are problems. The principle concern I have is integrating yogic activities with the above model – since meditation in specific (and yoga in general) occur in the absence of excitement. They are, indeed, about reaching profoundly calm states. Why is this a problem? It is because the Flow model inherently requires that when the challenge outstrips the skills, anxiety results, and when the skills outstrip the challenge, boredom results. But in meditation, neither of these happen.
An amateur in meditation or yoga does not experience anxiety when they fail to successfully meditate. They are just unable to quiet their conscious mind and may, as a result, feel bored – the opposite of what Flow theory suggests. Similarly, a master yogi does not feel bored when they fail to reach states of deep meditation – this isn't the nature of the optimal experience of meditation, in which the participant simply reaches as deep a state of mental calm as they are able.
So why should it be that meditation violates the pattern of optimal experience?
A possible answer is that Flow incorrectly conflates different mechanisms into a single mechanism. A paper by Solberg, Holen Ekeberg, Isferud, Halvorsen and Sndvik shows the neurological effects of meditation, which involves two “well-being proteins”, serotonin and melatonin – very different neurology to that I proposed above. However, studies by Andrew Newberg on Tibetan meditators show that the frontal lobe of the brain (which includes the decision centre) is highly active during meditation, while the parietal lobe – which is involved in orienting us in time and space – is largely inactive. The activation of the frontal lobe is associated with concentration, which is a condition of Flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi.
But this isn't the whole story. Kjaer, Bertelsen, Piccini, Brooks, Alving, and Lou published a paper on neurolobiological responses during Yoga Nidra meditation which demonstrated that dopamine was linked to meditation (or at least, to this one kind of meditation): this is a strange result! People who were actively reducing their desire for action (disabling what is termed the executive function of the brain – the brain areas that mediate planning and execution) experienced increased release of dopamine. If this finding applies to all forms of meditation, then perhaps there is a common element to all optimal experiences: dopamine, the “goal protein”.
The Flow Checklist
Now is a prudent time to examine Csikszentmihalyi's list of nine elements associated with the Flow state. He states that not all elements need be present for an optimal experience to occur, but these are in general the hallmarks of the experience as he describes it. Here I associate each element with an aspect of the brain or the neurotransmitter system.
Firstly, activity in the frontal lobe, which links to Csikszentmihalyi's “concentrating and focusing”, “loss of the feeling of self-consciousness”, “distorted sense of time”, “sense of personal control” and “action awareness merging”. According to my hypothesis, all Flow states involve significant activation of the frontal lobe in some way, resulting in the state of intense focus.
Secondly, the dopamine reward system, which links to Csikszentmihalyi's “clear goals”, “direct and immediate feedback”, “balance between ability level and challenge” and “intrinsically rewarding”. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with rewards, and furthermore the anticipation of uncertain reward produces small hits of dopamine. It is these small releases of dopamine which I contend are fundamental to optimal experience. In order for this to occur, the individual must always feel that the goal is achievable (which is how the “feedback” condition links to dopamine) but there also must be sufficient uncertainty that the outcome is not guaranteed (hence the “balance between ability level and challenge”). If the outcome is certain (the challenge is insufficient), boredom results – the anticipatory dopamine hits are cut off.
These two mechanisms I am contending are always involved in experience of Flow, although the relative activation of the frontal cortex versus the degree of dopamine released can be wildly different.
Finally, a third mechanism is required to explain the anxiety that occurs when the challenge outstrips ability, and this is presumably the “flight” of the fight or flight response (which I have discussed before in the context of rushgames), namely adrenalin (epinephrine) and the fear centre (amygdala) which is presumably triggered when the frontal cortex assesses the situation and concludes that the individual is out of their depth with respect to the degree of challenge. This causes the experience of anxiety. Furthermore, the experience of excitement acts to enhance the release of dopamine (which is to say, you experience more reward the more stress you were under prior to achieving the goal) thus creating a range of different Flow states according to the degree of stress associated with them.
I believe these three mechanisms are sufficient for an explanation of the neurological underpinnings of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory. All that remains is to validate this hypothesis experimentally which I shall not be doing since I am a game designer and not an experimental researcher.
my hypothesis that Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory is explicable in
terms of three neurobiological mechanisms: the frontal cortex, which
mediates concentration; the pleasure centre (the nucleus accumbens),
which releases dopamine in response to both the achievement of goals
and the anticipation of such achievement under uncertain conditions;
and the fight-or-flight mechanism, specifically the arousal produced
by epinephrine (which enhances rewards) and the anxiety that results
when the amygdala is activated when an individual feels out of their
depth. Between these three mechanisms, all the many and various optimal experiences result.
I welcome discussion in the comments.