Consider for a second when you’ve been performing at your absolute best, in whatever arena it might be. It might be your job, at school, in sports, or in an actual life threatening situation. Can you remember what was happening? How one specific event led to the next? Did time seem to decompress so that milliseconds turned to seconds?
Frequently, when human experts or even novices are performing at the highest levels of their ability they cannot recall specific instances of what happened, events from memory seem to all blur together, and time decompress and people report feeling as if things were moving in slow motion. I have personal experience with this from competitive Judo; I literally don’t remember some of my best matches. Sure, I can piece together a memory from what people have told me happened and on some intellectual level I can tell you what throw I made or how the match was won, but when I walked off the mat after those matches and people asked me, “Hey, what throw was that?” or, “What did he do that gave you the opening?” and my answer would be “Umm, I’m not sure… it just sort of happened.”
These traits are characteristic of what is referred to in psychology as an autotelic experience (autotelic comes from the Greek words auto, meaning “self”, and telos, meaning “purpose” or “goal”). Autotelic experiences are those moments of performance when the self is the purpose and the purpose is the self. Which is to say, in an autotelic experience with judo I am not thinking about how I am throwing, or how I should be throwing, or what will happen when I am done throw, I simply and purely am throwing. In these situations, the performer is in a state of flow, as the positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi would say. (By the way, the pronunciation on that is: Muh-High Tshik-sent-muh-high-i).
During a state of flow, a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. As with the autotelic experience, the flow state is characterized by a sense of timelessness and by an almost effortless proficiency. These are strange distortions of perception, clearly time is not really slowing down and even though it might feel effortless, clearly a lot of effort is being expended when we are working at our best. In this post, I am going to explore this notion of flow from several different angles: first I will delve into Zen philosophy and the concept of no-mindedness. Second, I will talk about how experimental psychology has approached the problem flow. Third, I will talk about the neurophysiology that might underlie this autotelic states.
Mushin no Shin
In Zen philosophy there is something equivalent to autotelic experiences and that is the state of Mushin no Shin (…or just mushin for short…). Mushin is the psychological state that highly trained individuals enter when they are in their element. In particular, the term is associated with martial artists, and mushin is the desired mental state to be in during combat. In truth, anyone can experience mushin in their discipline whether you are a painter, writer, a chef, or a surgeon. What characterizes mushin is not the task at hand, but detachment of the conscious self. Across these different disciplines, mushin is achieved when the mind is free from thoughts of desire, fear, anger, or ego. That is, with a mushin state of mind you do not use intellection to think of what the next move should be, you use intuition to feel what the next move should be, relying on finely tuned natural reactions to control your movement.
At this point it is important to distinguish mushin from a lack of effort or intensity. Paradoxically, mushin is at once effortful and effortless. It is effortful because the mind and body are working together and processing information from the environment very quickly in order to produce the appropriate response, but it is also effortless because the mind is not consciously intervening in the process, and the mind allows lower-level implicit mechanisms to guide action. This is also part of the reason why the mushin mindset emerges as a function of expertise, years of practice and the tuning of responses allow the expert to implicitly and efficiently respond to their environment, whereas novices do not possess the same robust reflexes and rely on greater conscious control of their actions.
A common Zen analogy is to describe the mushin mind as a still pond. A still pond reflects the world as it is, with minimal distortion. Conscious thoughts are like ripples on the surface of the pond; the greater the conscious effort the more the image of the real world is distorted. So, just as ripples in the pond distort our perceptions of reality, conscious thoughts disrupt our ability to perceive our environment in its “purest” form. One analogy I like better comes from Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, in which he describes a conversion he had with a Kyudo master (…Kyudo is Japanese school of archery that has been heavily influence by Zen Buddhism). The master is describing the state of mind required to shoot an arrow correctly and says that the archer cannot shoot the arrow; the arrow has to shoot itself. To illustrate his meaning the master explains that the archer and the arrow must be like a leaf in the winter.
Imagine a leaf covered in snow. The snow builds and the leaf starts to droop. As more snow builds eventually the leaf buckles under the weight, dropping the snow to the ground, and bouncing back to its original height. The leaf doesn’t decide when to release the snow; the timing is governed by a passive interaction between the leaf and the environment. So to must the archer not decide when to shoot the arrow, but the archer must lose himself in the environment, blurring the distinction between himself and the arrow, and the arrow and the target. Then, when the moment is right the archer should almost be bemused to find he has already loosed the arrow from the bow and struck the target.
The MIT Press recently published an excellent volume edited by Brian Bruya that explains research on a wide range of topics related to attention and the conscious control of behavior. The interesting commonality to all of the chapters is the challenge to the assumption that paying more attention leads to doing better. Strangely, there are a wide range of situations in which humans subjectively feel they are paying less attention but this lack of conscious attention actually improves their performance. An interesting example of this is in mental arithmetic. In a task called the Water Jug Problem (Luchins, 1942) subjects are shown three jugs of varying sizes on a computer screen (labeled Jug A, B, and C) and ask to produce a specific volume of water using the three sizes of jugs available. Now, the volume on each jug changes on each particular trial but the first few trials can all be solved by using the algorithm: A – B – 2C. After a few trials the structure of the task switches so that A – B – 2C still works to produce the correct answer, but the problem can also be solved by the simpler algorithms A – C or A + C. The fascinating finding is that those subjects with high working memory (i.e., subjects with a greater capacity for consciously attending to and manipulating information ) will persist in using the more complex algorithm rather than switching to the simple A – C or A + C algorithms. Low working memory individuals (on the other hand) were significantly more likely to switch to the simpler solution when it became available. Thus, individuals who have developed a greater reliance on cognitive control (such as high working memory subjects)can limit their own discovery of new problem solving approaches but can also engage attention-dependent learning strategies that override a more optimal implicit-associative strategy.
This effortless attention can be applied to motoric tasks as well as to cognitive tasks. Lots of work has been done by Dr. Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on the focus of attention and how it affects motor skill learning and performance. Specifically, if attention is directed to the performer’s body movements (i.e., inducing an internal focus of attention), motor learning is generally hampered compared to attention directed at the movement effect (i.e., inducing an external focus). These empirical results harmonize quite well the qualitative studies of autotelic states and the philosophical concept of mushin. These data suggest that there are very real, very reliable physiological mechanisms that explain why attending to the outcome or effect of an action yields superior results compared to focusing on one’s own body or mechanics. For instance, recent studies of swimming have found that giving swimmers external focus instructions related to the arm stroke in crawl swimming (e.g., “pushing the water back”) was more effective than internal focus instructions that directed attention towards the swimmer’s arms (e.g., “pulling your hands back”). Amazingly, this effect was demonstrated in both intermediate swimmers (Freudenheim, Wulf, Madureira, Corrêa, Araras, & Corrêa, in press) and experts (Stoate & Wulf, in press). These findings have obvious practical implications. For instance, in elite junior swimmers, an external focus of attention increased swim speed (i.e., reduced swim time) by an average of .18 s in a 25-yard crawl. Considering that in the 2008 Olympics, the difference between 1st place and 2nd place in the men’s 50 m crawl was only .15 s, and .11 s in the women’s 50 m crawl, this means that a swimmer’s focus of attention could potentially determine a swimmer’s place on the medal stand!!!
Research on the focus of attention continues to demonstrate that even subtle differences in the wording of instructions or feedback that a participant is given can have profound effects on behavior and the underlying physiology. Instructors, coaches, therapists, and performers themselves need to be aware of how these differences affect performance and should develop effective strategies to keep the performer’s attention focused externally on the intended effects of their movements. Internally focusing on one’s own movements constrains the motor system and leads to movements that are not only less accurate, but also less efficient at the neuromuscular level. (For a review of how attention affects not only the outcome of movement but the efficiency of movement, pick up a copy of Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory, and Practice – 2nd edition, edited by Nicola Hodges and Mark Williams... this volume should be published in early 2011 and will contain a chapter by Keith Lohse, Gabriele Wulf, and Rebecca Lewthwaite entitled Attentional focus affects movement efficiency).
Another interesting neuropsychological concept that relates very directly to the philosophical concept of no-mindedness is transient hypofrontality (THT), which means a temporary depression in activity of the frontal cortex. The logic behind THT is based on functional neuroanatomy and theories about consciousness being the confluence of other independent cognitive functions such as self-reflection, attention, memory, perception, and arousal. Such an inclusive definition of consciousness clearly implicates the whole brain in creating conscious experience, but it also places the frontal cortex in a unique position at the top of the consciousness hierarchy.
Essentially this theory argues that as you move from the lower neural structures, which are highly specialized, into higher neural structures like the thalamus and cortex, information becomes more integrated/abstracted from the multiple lower level structures, and as you move further forward in this imaginary brain-space, information continues to be aggregated and fed into fewer and fewer brain structures until it arrives in the frontal cortex where cognition takes place at its most integrated and abstract. Because the prefrontal cortex is the neural substrate of these topmost layers of processing, any change to conscious experience should affect the prefrontal cortex followed by a progression of changes to downstream brain areas that contribute more basic cognitive functions.
Interestingly, altered states of consciousness are characterized by a severe degree of hypofrontality. That is, if you take a drug such LSD or PCP you are inducing THT that suppresses activity in the frontal cortex, and this suppression of activity can lead to things as bizarre as hallucinations and delusions. Even more interestingly, is that mild hypofrontality is characteristic of brain activity during fatigue, long distance running, and meditation. How then, can something that is induced by taking dangerous drugs also be induced (albeit in a milder form) by the rhythmic motion of running?
Well, the first to thing to understand is that, from a computational perspective, running is incredibly complex. Sensory integration by itself requires an astronomical amount of data processing (and during running this processing must be done in real time!), which translates into the use of a lot of neural real estate. For example, the motor system (ignoring the equally involved sensory system) consists of the primary motor cortex, the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor cortex, the basal ganglia, parts of the thalamus, the cerebellum, the red nucleus, the substantia nigra, the pathway systems, and both α and γ-motor neurons running along the spinal cord. (The cerebellum by itself has more neurons than the rest of the cerebral cortex!). And if you still are not convinced that motor control is such a difficult problem, consider the fact that artificial intelligences can beat human beings in chess, analyze complex data sets in minutes that would take human agents days, but yet cannot manage walking on two feet (…although in that case the problem isn’t so much the actual motion of the limbs, but the maintenance of balance…).
This means that if we’re engaged in complex motor control process like running (or even walking) the brain has reallocate a lot of its metabolic resources. Thus, physical exercise, and skilled movement in particular, requires massive and sustained activation of various structures throughout the brain, and yet during exercise global blood flow to the brain and cerebral uptake of oxygen remain constant. This means that the brain has to make choices about how to allocate its finite metabolic resources and thus some resources are diverted away from the frontal cortex, leading to THT. As a result, sustained physical activity might be a particularly useful way to induce autotelic states because THT diminishes our self-reflection and ego as more neural resources are devoted to the action itself. In summary, modern neuroscience has found a candidate mechanism that might underlie the Zen concept of mushin, and this powerful physiological mechanism might help keep irrelevant distractions out, while reducing the ability of the conscious mind to intervene in the implicit processing of the motor system.