Mind The Gap. The Science Gap That Is.

This semester I joined the ranks of School of Public Health students before who have contributed to the Communicating Science Through Social Media course with Dr. Andrew Maynard.  In the class, students sign up for the daunting, yet exciting task of composing 10 science blogs in 10 weeks on the Mind The Science Gap (MTSG) site. No weeks off and no room for dropping the ball.

The process of developing a readable, interesting, and informative blog began with selecting a captivating topic that would (hopefully) appeal to readers—and to myself, the writer.  If I wasn’t interested, chances are it would show through.

I used the course as an opportunity to delve into topics such as alcohol and pregnancy, shingles, and Adderall use among

Image courtesy of photopin.com

Image courtesy of photopin.com

college students.  One of my classmates cleverly said that for her, the class offered a kind of “choose your own adventure” experience.  She was spot on; each of us was responsible for choosing the direction our blogs took.  Some MTSG bloggers even used an investigative style, uncovering relevant research along with readers as the post progressed.

No matter the approach, each MTSGer this semester was able to establish a certain narrative style and audience. For anyone who enjoys writing (or wants to learn how to enjoy writing) and pouring through scientific research, I highly recommend this class. I’ve really learned a lot about my interests in the field.  I’ve also learned how to tighten my writing and focus in on only the most significant details.

I want to share my final post of the semester from the class, which looks into the  “flow experience” and some of its health implications.  In these final weeks of my graduate school career, I have been thinking a lot about what makes me happy and what kinds of activities most engage and absorb me. As such, the notion of flow has become particularly interesting and relevant to me. I hope you enjoy reading.

Here is my post as seen in Mind The Science Gap Winter 2013…

GO WITH THE FLOW: A BALANCE BETWEEN SKILL AND CHALLENGE 

Although the outcome of last night’s NCAA championship game left me disillusioned and withdrawn (along with thousands of other disappointed fans), the game itself was pregnant with energy and Michigan spirit.  During the game—when my spirits were still high—I watched in awe at the way in which each of the basketball players was able to get into “the zone”.  They seemed to forget about the giant roaring crowd, forget about the depleting timer, and (at least momentarily) forget about the immense pressure they were under.  But does “the zone” exist? Or is it just a term we throw around all the time along with other, similar buzz words like “in the moment”, “wired in”, and “in the groove”?

One of the world’s leading researchers in the rather new area of psychology called positive psychology has actually studied this phenomenon for many years.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high),  calls the complete absorption in what one is doing the mental state of flow or the flow experience.  As he notes in his TEDx talk, when he first began researching flow, he spoke with a number of experts—painters, singers, surgeons, athletes—to get a sense of what it feels like to engage in their craft. Many of them described the feeling they get when as a “spontaneous flow” and transcendence.

But flow is not just for the athletes and scholars among us. In fact, research suggests that it may be a common part of human existence.  In a survey of Americans and Germans, only about one third of participants reported that they never, or rarely experienced flow.  However, the frequency and intensity of flow experiences is different from one individual to the next. It is a state that anyone can achieve if the proper conditions are in place.  In one of his books, Csikszentmihalyi designates nine characteristics of flow: a balance between skills and challenges, clear goals, immediate feedback, autotelic experience (e.g. intrinsically rewarding), concentration, merging of action and awareness, loss of self-consciousness, transformation of time (feels like more or less time has passed than the reality), and feeling in control.

According to Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues, to achieve flow, one must be faced with a challenge that is a match for his or her skills and offers new knowledge and new inspiration.  Flow can occur when completing a task at work, playing a challenging computer game, or cooking a meal. There is even group flow!

Since flow is characterized by absolute enjoyment in the process of completing the activity, anxiety or boredom restricts the state of flow.  If a challenge is too great, then the individual will be anxious. On the other hand, if one’s skills are too great, then the individual will be bored.  Tasks and activities that result in flow are about an enjoyable absorption in the process.

However, while flow is a well-documented concept in the literature, a major challenge in flow psychology research is quantifying the flow experience. Discrepancies in how researchers define and operationalize flow from one study to the next makes it difficult to appreciate the flow activities and how they affect the individual involved.  In addition, most of the flow studies to date are correlational in nature, meaning we can’t be certain that the flow state actually causes any notable outcomes or vice versa.  Despite these challenges, the diversity of the research on flow has continued to grow.

Is being in a state of flow good for your health?

On the whole, the answer is yes.  Studies demonstrate that flow is linked to positive affect, (enjoyment, joy, excitement, interest) and a reduction in negative affect in later life.  Based on the research, it is clear that positive affect and life satisfaction are correlated with lower morbidity and lower mortality.

For instance, in a university study, college studentswere randomly divided into two groups and asked to record 8-10 major

activities that they do in a typical week. They were then told to report what emotions they normally felt during the activity from

1 (never) to 10 (always) on boredom, challenged, ‘‘in the zone”, and upset. The researchers asked students assigned to the high flow induction group to perform one of their top three ‘‘in the zone’’ activities and the low flow induction group to perform one of the three lowest “in the zone” activities, for an hour in the next week. Participants assigned to the high flow condition experienced a greater increase in positive affect and greater decrease in negative affect based on surveys before they completed the activity to after they completed it than those in the low flow condition.  This particular study also demonstrates that different activities trigger flow for different people based on personal characteristics and experiences.

In another study, with older adults, respondents were asked to self-evaluate their experiences of flow.  They each provided retrospective accounts of daily flow experiences throughout a seven-day period.  They also rated themselves on measures of affect, life satisfaction, presence of flow, and quality of flow experience.  Surprisingly, the analyses showed that experiencing flow was not associated with life satisfaction. But there was a clear positive relationship between the quality of flow experiences (the degree of intense concentration, increased confidence, and loss of self-awareness) and happiness.

Can flow be harmful?

The answer to this is yes as well. First of all, being engaged in “too much” flow can have a reverse effect: a decrease in positive affect.  In the older adults study, researchers Collins et al. found that having a higher number of days with flow had a negative relationship with positive affect.  As one possible explanation for this, the researchers note that flow may offer a greater boost for positive feelings when it is a rare incidence rather than an everyday occurrence. It is also possible that individuals who are unhappy seek out flow experiences in an attempt to feel better.

Moreover, a study looking at the physiology of flow experiences, found that flow may reduce one’s heart rate variability (variation in the time interval between heart beats), which can be linked to worry and a high mental workload.

Flow may also result in stress as indicated by relatively high levels of salivary cortisol during a flow state.  While there are positive forms of stress (such as estress), the researchers for this study did not find any indication that the stress in this case was positive or healthy.  The researchers state that: “in our view, it is questionable whether increased levels of cortisol can be considered as healthy—in particular when they endure for extended periods.” Thus, this line of flow research may warrant further study.

Finally, flow can become dangerously addicting. When someone is addicted to a particular flow-inducing activity such as gambling or gaming, rather than being a choice, a particular activity becomes essential.  In addition, other activities that used to result in flow for an individual no longer do so.

The conclusion?

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

Flow is an inherently enjoyable, positive experience that almost all of us can say we have experienced. The literature suggests that it can result in some possible undesirable side-effects. But additional research in this area may lead to more conclusive findings.

Now, I have a question for you.

Do you ever get involved in something so intensely that nothing else seems to matter and you lose track of time? In other words, what makes you “flow”?

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