Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Anatomy of Consciousness

Anatomy of Consciousness

At certain points in history, cultures have assumed that an individual is not fully human unless he or she learns to master his or her thoughts and feelings. In Confucian countries like China, in ancient Sparta, in the Roman Republic, in the Pilgrim community and among the Victorian English elite, people were responsible for tightly controlling their emotions. Anyone who indulges in self-pity, letting instinct instead of contemplation dominate the action, will be deprived of the right to be accepted as a member of the community. In other historical periods, such as when we live, self-control is not valued. People who try to do that are considered a bit silly, "rigid," or not very "flexible." But despite the calls of the times, it seems that those who strive to achieve mastery of what goes on in consciousness live happier lives.

To achieve such mastery, it is clear that understanding how consciousness works is extremely important. In this chapter, we will take a step closer in this direction. First, to dispel the climate of skepticism that when we speak of consciousness we are referring to some mysterious process, we need to recognize that, like every other aspect of human behavior, consciousness is the result of biological processes. It only exists thanks to the extremely complex structure of our nervous system, which is formed based on the information contained in the chromosome protein molecule. At the same time, we should recognize that the way consciousness works is not entirely controlled by its biological programming—in many of the important aspects that we will discuss in the following pages, consciousness is self-directed. In other words, consciousness has developed the ability to override genetic imperatives and establish its own independent sequence of actions.

The function of consciousness is to reproduce information about what is going on outside and inside the body in a way that it can be estimated and so that the body can act accordingly. According to this view, consciousness functions as a screening ground for sensations, perceptions, emotions and ideas, forming priorities among all the different information. Without consciousness, we will still "know" what is happening, but we will only react to it in a reflexive, instinctive way. Consciously, we can carefully consider what our senses tell us and respond accordingly. And we can also create information that didn't exist before: it's because we're conscious, so we can daydream, paint lies, and write beautiful verses or scientific theories.

Through the endless dark centuries of evolution, the human nervous system has become so complex that it can now influence its own state, making it, at a certain functional range, no longer dependent on the genetic map and of the objective environment. Each person can make himself happy or miserable by changing the content of consciousness, regardless of what is really happening "outside." We all know there are individuals who can turn hopeless situations into challenges that can be overcome, just by the strength contained in their personality. The ability to persevere despite these obstacles and setbacks is the quality that people most admire in an individual and just need to be; It is perhaps the most important virtue, not only to succeed in life, but also to enjoy life to the fullest.

To develop this virtue, one must find ways to rearrange consciousness so that they can control their emotions and thoughts. It's best not to expect shortcuts to solve the problem. Some people tend to become very mystical when talking about consciousness and expecting it to create miracles, when in reality consciousness was not created to do it. They want to believe that anything is possible in what they consider a spiritual realm. Others claim the power to connect with past lives, communicate with mental entities, and exhibit extraordinary psychic abilities. When lies aren't so obvious, these descriptions often become "self-deception"—lies that a superior receptive mind will reveal itself.

The outstanding achievements of Hindu ascetics and practitioners of other schools of spiritual discipline are regularly presented as examples of the infinite power of the mind, along with many other proofs. But even if many of these assertions no longer stand under research investigation, standing cases can still be explained as an extremely intensive training of an ordinary mind. After all, occult explanations are unnecessary for the performance of an outstanding violinist or a great athlete, even though most of us cannot even approach their talent. Similarly, yogis are also a master at controlling consciousness. Like every other master, it took him years of learning and constantly cultivating. As a practitioner, he could not devote his time or mental energy to doing anything other than constantly refining his skills in controlling his inner experiences. The skills that yogis accumulate pay the same price as many worldly abilities that others learn to develop and then overlook. What a yogi practitioner can do is amazing but what a plumber or mechanic can do is just as amazing.

Perhaps we will eventually discover the hidden powers of the mind that allow it to make major breakthroughs that we can only dream of at the moment. There is no reason to rule out the possibility that we will eventually be able to bend the spoon with brainwaves. Yet, at this moment, when there are so many mundane but equally urgent tasks to be done, it would be a waste of time to crave powers beyond our reach, when consciousness, along with its present limitations, can be leveraged much more effectively. While the mind can't do everything one desires right now, it has countless untapped potentials that we desperately need to learn how to use.

Since there is no branch of science that directly studies consciousness, there is no accepted description of how consciousness works. Many disciplines have touched on this topic and thus they provide fragmentary records. Neuroscience, neuroanatomy, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology are some of the most directly related fields that can be singled out; However, trying to summarize the conclusions drawn from these fields produces a record that resembles the conjectural descriptions of blind fortune tellers watching elephants: each is different and each has nothing to do with the other. Undoubtedly, we will continue to learn important knowledge about consciousness from these fields, but in the meantime, we still have a duty to provide a model that is fact-based and interpreted simply enough for anyone to use.

While it may sound like an inexplicable academic jargon, the most concise description of the approach I believe is the brightest way to probe key aspects of what happens in the mind, in a way that can be useful in practical practice in everyday life, It is "a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory". This description of consciousness is phenomenology, which refers directly to events—phenomena—as we experience and interpret them, rather than focusing on the anatomical structures, biochemical neural processes, or unconscious purposes that make these events possible. Of course, it is understood that whatever goes on in the mind is the result of electrochemical changes inside the central nervous system, because this has been claimed for millions of years by biological evolution. But phenomenology suggests that a mental event can be best understood if we look at it head-on as soon as we experience it, rather than looking through the technical light of a particular field. However, in contrast to pure phenomenology, which intentionally excludes every other theory or science from its methodology, the model we will explore here accepts basic principles from information theory as they relate to understanding what happens in consciousness. These fundamentals include knowledge of how sensory data is processed, stored, and used — the kinetic energies of attention and memory.

So, with this organizational structure in mind, what does it mean to be conscious? It is simply specific conscious events (feelings, feelings, thoughts, intentions) that are taking place and that we can control or influence their course. On the other hand, when we dream, some similar events occur, but we are not conscious of them because we have no control over them. For example, I may dream of receiving news that my loved one has an accident and I may feel great grief. I might think, "I wish I could help." Despite the fact that I see, feel, think, and come up with my dream intentions, I am unable to act on these developments (for example, by probing to verify the veracity of the news) and therefore, I'm not conscious of them. In dreams, we are confined to a single scenario without being able to change it at will. The events that make up consciousness—what we see, feel, think, and desire—are information that we can manipulate and use. Thus, we can view consciousness as purposefully organized information.

This succinct definition, while accurate, does not give the full importance of what it conveys. Because for us, external events are seen as non-existent unless we are aware of them; The consciousness corresponding to reality is experienced subjectively. While everything we feel, smell, hear or remember, is a potential candidate for consciousness, the experiences of actually becoming part of consciousness are far fewer than the rest. So while consciousness is a mirror that reflects our senses, telling us what's happening both outside our bodies and inside our nervous system, it only selectively reflects those changes, actively shaping events. put on them a reality of its own. The reflection that consciousness provides is what we call our lives: the sum of what we hear, see, feel, hope and endure from birth to death. Although we believe that there are "things" outside consciousness, we only have direct evidence of things that find a place in consciousness.

As a screening center — in which different events are processed by different senses, which can be reproduced and collated — consciousness can simultaneously contain African hunger, the scent of roses, Dow Jones readings and even the intention to stop at the store to buy some bread. But that doesn't mean that the content of consciousness is a mess, undefined form.

We can call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness in order. Intentions will arise in consciousness whenever a person perceives a desire or desire to achieve something. Intentions are also part of information, shaped by biological needs and subjective social goals. They act as magnetic fields, shifting attention toward a few objects and away from others, keeping our minds focused on these few stimuli rather than others. We often call the expression of intention by other names, such as instinct, need, urge, or desire. But these names are all explanatory terms that tell us why people behave certain ways. Intent is actually a more descriptive and neutral term; It does not say why a person wants to do something but simply affirms that he wants to do it.

For example, whenever blood glucose drops to a critical point, we begin to feel discomfort: we may feel irritable, sweaty and cramped stomach. Thanks to genetic instructions programmed to restore blood sugar levels, we can start thinking about food. We will search for food until we are fed and no longer hungry. In this case, we can say that hunger itself arranges the content of consciousness, forcing us to focus our attention on food. But this is inherently an interpretation of objective facts—without a doubt, chemically accurate but not phenomenally relevant. The hungry person is not aware of his blood sugar level; He only knew there was some information in his consciousness that he had learned to identify a "hunger."

When a person notices that he is hungry, he may form the intention to find some food. If he does, his behavior will be the same as if he were simply following a need or urge. But in addition, he can completely ignore hunger pangs. He may have some stronger contradictory intentions, such as losing weight or wanting to save money or fast for religious reasons. Sometimes, as in the case of political protesters who want to go on hunger strike to death, the intention to make an ideological statement may overwhelm the genetic indications, leading to voluntary death.

The intentions we inherit or create ourselves are hierarchical in our goals, which determine their priorities. For protesters, achieving the political reforms set out may be more important than anything else, including lives. That goal takes precedence over everything else. However, most people follow "realistic" goals based on their body's needs — living a long, healthy life, having sex, eating well, and living comfortably; or based on aspirations injected by the social system – to be competent, to work hard, to spend as much as possible, to live up to people's expectations. But in every culture there are enough exceptions to point out that goals are completely flexible. Individuals who transcend the norm—heroes, saints, sages and poets, as well as madmen and criminals—seek different things in life than others. The existence of people like this suggests that consciousness can be organized based on different intentions and goals. Each of us has this freedom to control our own subjective reality.


If it were possible to expand what consciousness implies to infinity, one of humanity's most fundamental dreams would become a reality. It will become something as great as immortality or omnipotence – in short, it is like a god. We can reflect on things, feel things, do things, scan through so much information that we can fill every part of a second with a rich tapestry of experience. Within a lifetime, we can go through a million or—why not—infinite lives.

Unfortunately, our nervous system has certain limits in how much information it can process at a time. There are so many "events" that appear in consciousness, they are recognized and processed appropriately, before starting to overflow and push each other out. Walking across a room while chewing gum is not so difficult, although some politicians are said to be unable to do so; But in reality, there aren't many things we can do simultaneously. The thoughts must follow one after another, otherwise they will get confused. While we're thinking about a problem, we can't really experience happiness or grief. We can't run, sing, and balance our budgets all at once, because every single one of them consumes most of our attention.

At this point, within the scope of available scientific knowledge, we stand at the point where it is possible to estimate how much information the central nervous system is capable of processing. It seems that we can control at most seven pieces of information—such as different sounds, visual stimuli, perceptible emotional nuances, or thoughts—at any given time, and the shortest time it takes to distinguish between one string of pieces of information and another is about a fraction eighteen seconds. By these numbers, we can conclude that the central nervous system can process at most 126 pieces of information per second, or 7,560 pieces per minute, or nearly half a million pieces per hour. Over the course of seventy years of our lives, if we had sixteen hours a day without sleep, we could process up to 185 billion pieces of information. These numbers prove that everything in our lives has to go through every thought, feeling, or action. This may seem like a big number, but in reality, it's not that much.

The limit of consciousness is justified by the fact that in order to understand what others are saying, we must process 40 pieces of information per second. If we assume to limit our abilities to a higher level, up to 126 pieces per second, then it is theoretically possible for us to understand what three people are saying at once, but only by controlling to prevent any other thoughts or emotions from entering consciousness. For example, we can't perceive a speaker's expression and can't wonder why they're saying what they're saying or notice what they're wearing.

Of course, these findings only hint at how the mind works, at this moment, within the scope of our knowledge. It can be justifiably argued that people are underestimating or overestimating the mind's ability to process information. Optimists argue that through evolution, the nervous system has become so adept at sorting pieces of information that its processing capacity is constantly expanding. Simple functions such as adding a column of numbers or driving a car have evolved to become automatic, leaving the mind free to process more data. We also learn to compress and organize information through symbolic means—language, mathematics, abstract concepts, and stylized narratives. For example, each biblical parable attempts to encode the hard-won experiences of many individuals across countless eras. Optimists argue that consciousness is an "open system"; In fact, it can expand to infinity and we do not need to take into account its limits.

But the ability to condense stimuli doesn't help as much as one might expect. The demands of life still force us to spend 8% of our sleepless time in the day eating and spending almost the same amount of time taking care of our personal physical needs such as bathing, eating, shaving and hygiene. These two activities alone cost 15% of our consciousness, and while doing these things, we can't do things that require intense concentration. But even if nothing else is pressing to occupy the mind, most people still can't achieve absolute information processing ability. In about a third of a day untied by obligations, during precious "idle" time, in fact most people seem to try to use their minds as little as possible. For American adults, most of their free time — almost half of it — is spent in front of the television. The content and characters of a popular show are so repetitive that no memory, thoughts, or desires are required, even though watching television requires visual processing. Not surprisingly, people report the lowest levels of concentration, skill use, clarity of thought, and feelings of performance while watching television. Other leisure activities that people do at home require a little more. Reading newspapers and magazines, talking to others and looking out the window also require very little processing of new information and so also less concentration.

So the 185 billion events experienced in our years of human life can be considered either too high or too low. If we consider the amount of data that the brain can theoretically process this number may be too low, but if we look at how people use their minds it is absolutely quite high. In any case, an individual always experiences too much. Therefore, the information we allow to enter consciousness becomes extremely important; In fact, it is what determines the content and quality of life.


A piece of information comes into consciousness because we intentionally focus our attention on it, or it is the result of attention habits based on biological or social instructions. For example, when we drive off the road we run past hundreds of cars without really being aware of them. Their shapes and colors can be written into our minds for a fraction of a second and then instantly forgotten. But occasionally we will notice a particular vehicle, perhaps because it swerves constantly between lanes or because it moves too slowly or its appearance is unusual. The image of an unusual car enters the center of consciousness and we become aware of that car. In the mind, visual information about the car (e.g., "It's wriggling") is referenced with information about other wrong cars that have been stored in memory, in order to determine which category the current case fits into. Is this an inexperienced driver, a drunk driver, or a qualified driver but momentarily distracted? When an ongoing event matches a previously known event type, it is identified. Now it has to be assessed: Is this something to worry about? If the answer is "yes," then we must decide on an appropriate course of action: Should we speed up or down, should we change lanes or stop and tell the police cars patrolling the road?

All these complex mental activities must be completed in just a few seconds, sometimes, in a fraction of a second. While shaping a judgment may seem like a lightning-fast reaction, it actually happens in real time. And it doesn't happen automatically: There's a separate process that makes such reactions possible, a process called attention. It's mindful to select relevant pieces of information, from millions of potentially available pieces of information. It takes attention to access relevant facts from memory, to evaluate events and to choose the right way to behave.

Despite its immense power, attention cannot transcend the limits that have been drawn. It can't pay attention or keep focus on processing multiple pieces of information simultaneously. Retrieving information from its place of storage in memory and bringing it to the center of consciousness, collating information, evaluating, making decisions, all require the mind's ability to process — which is inherently limited — its ability to process. For example, a driver who encounters another car swerving on the road will have to stop talking on his cell phone if he wants to avoid an accident.

Some people learn how to use this invaluable resource effectively while others waste it. The manifestation of a person in a state of conscious control is the ability to focus attention according to one's desires, to ignore distractions, to focus until the goal is achieved and no more. People who can do this often know how to enjoy the simple things in everyday life.

Two wildly different people come to mind that can illustrate how attention is used to align consciousness to serve an individual's goals. The first was E., a European woman, one of the most powerful and popular women in her country. A world-renowned scholar, she has also built a thriving business, employing hundreds of people and outpacing other companies in the same field by a gap equal to a generation. E. constantly went to business, political and professional meetings, traveling between her mansions around the world. If there had been a concert in the town in which she was staying, E. would have attended; In her first spare time, after busy times, she would go to a museum or library. And while she was in a meeting, her driver instead of standing somewhere and waiting, he would visit some local art gallery or some museum; Because on the drive home, his mistress will want to discuss what he thinks about the paintings there.

Not a single minute of E.'s life was wasted. She usually writes, solves problems, reads one of the five newspapers or highlighted sections of the books that are part of her daily schedule, or she just asks questions, observes what's going on curiously, and plans what's next. Very little of her time was spent on daily life activities. Conversation and courtesy were done in a gentle manner, but she limited herself whenever possible. However, every day she takes a moment to refresh her mind by something as simple as standing still by the lake for fifteen minutes or closing her eyes to the sun. Or she could take her dog for a walk around in the meadows in the hills outside town. E. controls her attention processes so tightly that she can disconnect from consciousness at will and take a nap to be more alert whenever she has free time.

E.'s life was not peaceful. Her family fell into poverty after World War I and during the Second World War she herself lost everything, including her freedom. A few decades ago, she contracted a chronic illness that her doctor insisted was deadly. But she won back everything, including her health, by training her attention and refusing to diffuse it into unhelpful thoughts or actions. At this moment, she radiated a ray of pure energy. Despite the difficulties of the past and the whirlwind of her present life, she still seems to enjoy every second of her life to the fullest.

The second person I think of is the opposite of E. in many ways, the only similarity being that they have the same pronounced and persistent attention force. R. is a thin man whose first impression is not easily sympathetic. He was shy, so humble that he was self-absorbed, and it was easy to forget about him after a brief encounter. Although only a few people knew him, he was very popular with them. He was an erudite master of a complex branch of scholarship and also the author of exquisite poems translated into many languages. Every time someone talks to him, the image of a deep well full of energy comes to mind. As he spoke, his eyes saw through everything; Every sentence he hears is analyzed in three or four different ways just before the speaker finishes speaking. Things that most people take for granted puzzle him; And until you explain them in a basic but extremely appropriate way, you won't leave them that way.

Despite this constant effort of the focused mind, R. gives the impression of tranquility, or quietness, of composure. He always seemed to be aware of the slightest vibrations from his surroundings. But R. doesn't pay attention to things to change or judge them. He was willing to acknowledge reality, understand it, and then perhaps he would show his understanding. R. does not intend to make an immediate impact on society as E. did. But when his consciousness is arranged in an orderly and complex manner, his attention is extended as long as possible, in interaction with the world around him. And just like E., he seems to be enjoying his own life intensely.

Each person disperses his or her limited attention by purposefully focusing it as a ray of energy—like E. and R.—or by diffusing it in random and unsystematic movements. The shape and what happens in life depends on how you use your attention. Completely different realities will pop up depending on how focused attention is. The names we use to describe personality traits—such as extroversion, brilliance, or paranoia—are based on specific methods we use to structure our attention. In the same situation, the extrovert will seek and enjoy interaction with others, the outstanding person will look for profitable business contacts, and the paranoid person will be alert to danger signals that he must avoid. Attention can be invested in countless ways, ways that can make life rich or miserable.

The versatility of attention structures is even more apparent when they are compared across cultures or professional classes. Eskimos hunters were trained to distinguish between dozens of types of snow and were always aware of the direction and speed of the wind. Melanesian indigenous sailors could be taken to any point in the middle of the ocean within a radius of several hundred miles of the island they lived on blindsided, and if allowed to spend a few minutes at sea, they could still tell the location by feeling the currents flowing through their bodies. A musician structures attention to focus on tones that the average person doesn't perceive, a stock trader who focuses on extremely small changes in the market that others don't notice, a doctor who has an extraordinary eye that can see symptoms — because they train their attention to process signals that, if not noticed, are easy to ignore.

Because attention determines what will or won't appear in consciousness and because it is necessary to induce any other mental event such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions, it is helpful to view it as a source of mental energy. Attention is like energy in that without it, nothing gets done, and it dissipates as we work. We create ourselves through the way we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and emotions are all shaped by how we use attention. And it is a source of energy that is under our control, so that we use it when we want; Therefore, attention is the most important tool in the quest to improve the quality of experience.


But what are the first-person pronouns mentioned above—those of us and ours—that are supposed to control attention? Where do I, the entity that decides what to do with the mental energy generated by the nervous system? Where is the captain of the ship—the master of the soul—located?

As soon as we think about these questions, even if only for a moment, we realize that I, or the self we will refer to from now on, is one of the contents of consciousness. It is something that is never separated from the center of attention. Naturally my own ego exists only in my own consciousness; And there will be many versions of it that exist in the consciousness of those who know me, most of whom must not see the same "original" self as I see myself.

However, the ego is not merely a piece of information. In fact, it contains everything else that passes through consciousness such as: all memories, actions, desires, pleasures and including pains. And more than anything else, the ego represents the priority of the goals we build, little by little, over the years. The political activist's ego may become indistinguishable from his ideology, the banker's ego may be tied to his investments. Of course, often we don't think about our egos this way. At each given moment, we are usually only partially aware of it, such as when we are conscious of what we look like or the impression we make or of what we really want to do if possible. We often associate the ego with our bodies, although sometimes we expand its boundaries to identify with a car, a house, or a family. However, no matter how much we perceive it, the self is, in many ways, the most important element of consciousness, because it represents all the other contents of consciousness, as well as the model of their relationships.

Readers who patiently followed this issue here may have spotted a faint trace of the circle lurking at this point. If attention, or mental energy, is controlled by the ego and if the ego is the sum total of the contents of consciousness plus the structure of its goals and if the content of consciousness and goals are the result of different ways of focusing attention, then we have a loop-type system, with unclear causes or consequences. At one point, we say that the ego controls attention, but at other times, we assume that attention determines the ego. In fact, both assertions are true: consciousness is not a purely linear system, but a system of cyclic causality. Attention shapes ego and ego shapes attention.

An example of this type of causality is the experience of Sam Browning, one of the young men we've tracked in our time-based studies. Sam went to Bermuda for Christmas break with his father when he was fifteen. At that moment, he didn't have any thought about what he wanted to do with his life; His ego is somewhat undefined and does not yet have a personality of its own. Sam doesn't have clearly different goals; He wanted exactly what other boys his age wanted, because of his genetic programming and because of what his social environment told them to want—in other words, he vaguely thought about going to college, and then finding some well-paying jobs. married and lived somewhere in the suburbs. In Bermuda, Sam's father took him on a tour of the coral barrier and they dived underwater to explore the reef. Sam couldn't believe his eyes. He realized this mysterious, beautiful, fierce environment was so enchanting that he decided to stick with it more. Eventually, he took several biology courses in high school and is now in the process of becoming a marine scientist.

In Sam's case, a random event impressed his consciousness: the challenging beauty of life in the ocean. He hadn't planned to have this experience; It is not the result of the ego or of the goal of directing attention. But when he became aware of what was going on under the sea, Sam liked it — the experience resonated with the things he had enjoyed doing before, with the feelings he had about beauty and nature, with the prioritization of what was important that he had established over the years. He felt the experience was something wonderful, something worth looking for again. That's why he built this random event into a structure of goals — to learn more about the ocean, take courses, go on to college and graduate, find a job as a marine biologist — that became central elements of his ego. Since then, the goals have focused Sam's attention more on the ocean and ocean life, thereby closing the circle of causality. First, attention helps him shape his ego as he notices the beauty of the world beneath the surface of the water that he stumbles across; Later, when he attempted to seek knowledge in the field of marine biology, his ego began to shape his attention. Of course, Sam's case was not an unusual exception; Most people develop the structure of attention in similar ways.

At this point, most of the ingredients necessary to understand how consciousness is controlled have been put in place. We have seen that the experience depends on how we focus our mental energy, i.e. on the structure of attention. So this has to do with goals and intentions. These processes are linked together by the ego, or the spiritual functional expression of the entire target system we have. These are things that need to be maneuvered if we want to improve things. Of course, life can also be improved by external events, such as winning the million-dollar lottery, marrying the right person, or joining hands to change an unjust social system. But even these wonderful events must happen consciously and be connected to our ego in positive ways before they can impact our quality of life.

The structure of consciousness is beginning to become clearer, but so far, we only have a fairly static picture, one that depicts different elements, not the processes in which they interact with each other. At this point, we need to consider that every time attention brings a new piece of information into awareness, what follows. Only then will we gain a thorough judgment about how experiences are controlled and thus change for the better.


One of the main forces that adversely affects consciousness is psychosis—information that conflicts with existing intentions or distracts us from carrying out those intentions. We give this state many names, depending on how we experience it: pain, fear, resentment, anxiety, or jealousy. All of this diversity disorder forces attention to deviate toward unwanted goals, leaving us no longer free to use our attention in accordance with our priorities. Mental energy also becomes difficult to control and inefficient.

Consciousness can become disordered in many ways. At an audiovisual equipment factory, for example, Julio Martinez — one of the people we studied using the Experience Sampling Method — was in a state of absentmindedness at work. As the film projector passed in front of him on the assembly line, he was distracted and could hardly keep up with the rhythm of motion needed to weld the joints, which was his responsibility. Often he could do his part with a relaxed time and relax for a while, telling a few funny stories before a new machine stopped in front of his station. But today he is struggling and sometimes he slows down a whole line. When the man standing at the next station joked with him about it, Julio responded harshly. From early morning to work, the tension kept increasing and it affected Julio's relationship with his colleagues.

Julio's problem was simple, almost nothing, but it weighed heavily on his mind. One afternoon a few days earlier, on his way home from work, he noticed that one of the tires had gone flat a little. The next morning the rim of the wheel almost touched the ground. Julio won't get his paycheck until the end of next week, and he's sure he won't have enough money to patch his tyres until now, let alone buy a new one. Credit was something he still hadn't learned how to use. The factory was on the outskirts, about twenty miles from where he lived, and he had to get there by eight o'clock in the morning. The only solution Julio could think of was to drive cautiously to the service station in the morning, pump his car and then drive to work as quickly as he could. But by the time work was over, the tires had flattened again, so he had to pump it at a gas station near the factory and run home.

From the morning of the incident, he had been doing this for three days and hoped that it would go smoothly until the next pay period. But today, when he arrived at the factory, he drove miserably because the wheels were so flat. All day long, he couldn't stop worrying: "Can I drive home tonight? How am I going to get to work tomorrow morning?" These questions kept circling in his mind, interrupting his focus on his work and dragging his mood down.

Julio is a prime example of what happens when the inner order of the ego is broken. The basic paradigm is always the same: some information that conflicts with an individual's goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how essential that goal is to the ego and how serious the threat is, some part of the attention will have to be mobilized to eliminate the danger, leaving little attention to solve other problems. For Julio, keeping a job is a top priority. If he loses his job, all his other goals will be compromised; So keeping his job was a necessity to maintain order within his ego. The flat tire was threatening his work and, therefore, it consumed a lot of his mental energy.

Whenever information disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals, we fall into a state of inner disorder, or mental entropy, a structural destruction of the ego, undermining its effectiveness. Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the ego to the point where it can no longer focus its attention and pursue goals.

Julio's problem is relatively mild and transitory. An example of more frequent psychotic entropy is the case of Jim Harris, an excellently talented eleventh grader who was one of our survey participants. One Wednesday afternoon at home alone, he stopped in front of the mirror in the bathroom he once shared with his parents. On the box at his feet, the Grateful Dead's tape was playing and it had been playing almost nonstop for the past week. Jim was trying on one of his father's favorite outfits, a dark green sheepskin shirt that his father wore whenever they both went camping. Running his hand over the warm fabric, Jim remembered the cozy feeling of chaining close to his father in the smoke-filled tent, as the gavia diving birds rang out across the lake. Jim's right hand was holding a large pair of sewing scissors. The sleeves were too long for him and he wondered if he would dare cut them short. Your father would have been furious... And did he notice? A few hours later, Jim was in his bed. On the bedside table was a bottle of aspirin that was now empty, although it wasn't long ago that there were still seven in it.

Jim's parents separated a year ago and now they are divorcing. During the school days of the week, Jim lived with his mother. On Friday afternoons, he packed up and went to live in his father's new apartment in the suburbs. One of the problems with this arrangement was that he could never be with his friends: on weekdays they were busy, and on weekends Jim was stuck in a suburb where he knew no one. He kills his free time on the phone, trying to contact his friends. Or he listened to tapes that he felt resonate with the loneliness that gnawed at him. But the worst thing Jim felt was that his parents were fighting fiercely for his affection. They constantly make mean things about each other, trying to make Jim feel guilty when he shows any love or care to one of them in front of the other. "Save me!" was the line he scribbled in his diary days before attempting suicide. "I don't want to hate my mother, I don't want to hate my father. I wish they wouldn't do this to me again."

Luckily, that afternoon Jim's sister noticed that the aspirin bottle was empty and called her mother and Jim was rushed to the hospital, his stomach was rinsed and a few days later he was able to stand up. But thousands of kids his age weren't so lucky.

The flat tire threw Julio into a momentary panic attack and the divorce nearly killed Jim, which didn't have as direct an impact as the physical causes that produced a physical impact — for example, a snooker ball hitting another ball and causing it to hit multiple balls in a predictable way. External events appear in consciousness merely as information, not necessarily with any positive or negative value attached to it. It is the ego that interprets that raw information in the context of its own concerns and decides whether or not that information is harmful. For example, if Julio had more money or money in the bank, his problem would have been completely harmless. If in the past he had focused more of his mental energy on making friends at work, the flat tire wouldn't have created panic, because he could have asked one of his colleagues to hitchhike for a few days. And if he had stronger confidence, then this temporary obstacle would not affect him so much, because he would believe his abilities could eventually overcome it. Likewise, if Jim had been more independent, the divorce wouldn't have affected him so deeply. But at his age, his goals were still inextricably linked to those of his father and mother, so the rift between them also shattered his sense of self. If only he had closer friends, or had a longer list of goals achieved, his ego would have the power to maintain its integrity. He was fortunate that, after this breakdown, his parents recognized the dangerous situation and sought help for themselves and their son, re-establishing a strong enough relationship with Jim, allowing him to continue to build a strong ego.

Every single piece of information we process is judged by what it means to the self. Does it threaten our goals, does it support them or does it have no effect at all? News of the stock market crash may make bankers nervous, but it can strengthen a political activist's sense of ego. A new piece of information will create chaos in our consciousness, either by causing us to wake up to face the threat, or it will reinforce our goals, thereby releasing mental energy.


The state as opposed to mental entropy is optimal experience. When information comes into perception in line with those goals, mental energy flows out easily. There is nothing to worry about, no reason to question the person's ability to respond. But whenever the person stops to think about themselves, the evidence will show that: "You're okay." Positive feedback strengthens the ego and more attention is freed up to deal with the internal and external environment.

Another person who participated in our survey, a worker named Rico Medellin, regularly gets this feeling in his work. He shares a factory with Julio, in another position on the assembly line. The task he had to do for each machine passing in front of his station required forty-three seconds—and it had to be done exactly that six hundred times in one working day. Most people will gradually get tired of such work. But Rico has been doing this work for more than five years and he continues to love it. The reason is because he approaches his mission in the same way that Olympic athletes approach their tournaments: How to break records? Like a runner trained for years to shorten seconds from his best performance on the previous track, Rico trained himself to be more agile on the assembly line. With careful attention as a surgeon, he created a personal habit in how he used his tools and how he performed his movements. After five years, his best average speed in a day was twenty-eight seconds per machine. In part, he tries to improve his performance to earn more and gain respect from supervisors. But often he doesn't even tell others that he's ahead and he lets his success happen without anyone knowing. There was enough evidence that he would succeed, because when he was at his peak performance, the experience was so enjoyable that if he had to slow down he would be miserable. "It feels better than anything else," Rico said, adding, "It's totally better than watching TV." Rico knew that, soon, he would reach a point where he couldn't improve his performance any further. So he took electronics courses twice a week. Once he got his certification, he would find a more complex job, one that he would have done with the same enthusiasm as he had shown until now.

For Pam Davis, it's easier to have balance and comfort at work. As a young lawyer in a small firm, she is fortunate to be involved in complex and challenging cases. She took the time to go to the library, find references, and map out possible courses of action for the company's senior associates to follow. Usually she was so focused that she forgot to eat lunch and by the time she realized she was hungry, it was already dark outside. While she immerses herself in her work, every single piece of information is relevant, even when momentarily frustrated, she knows what causes that frustration and she believes that in the end, any obstacle can be overcome.

These examples illustrate what we mean by the optimal experience. They are situations in which attention can be freely focused to achieve an individual's goals, because there is no disorder to be realigned, nor is there a threat to the ego to defend. We call this state the flow experience, because it's a term that many of the people we interviewed used in their descriptions of how they feel at their best: "It's as if you're drifting." "I was going with the flow." This is the opposite of mental entropy — in fact, it's sometimes called negentropy — and those who achieve it develop a stronger, more confident ego, as their mental energy is successfully focused on the main goals they have chosen to pursue.

When a person is able to align their consciousness to experience flow as often as possible, their quality of life inevitably improves, because, as in the case of Rico and Pam, even routine tasks that are often boring become meaningful and enjoyable. In flow, we are under the control of mental energy and everything we do reinforces order for consciousness. One of our study subjects, a famous West Coast rock climber, succinctly explained the bond between pastimes that gave him a deep sense of flow and the rest of his life: "It's exciting to get closer and closer to self-control. You force your body to move and everything on your body hurts; Then in fear you look at yourself, at what you have done, it stuns you. It leads you to a trance, to self-fulfillment. If you win these wars, the fight with yourself, at least for a moment, it's easier to win other wars in the world."

The "war" here is not against the ego, but against entropy that leads to chaos in consciousness. It's really a fight for ego; It struggles to establish control over attention. The struggle is not necessarily physical as in the case of the climber. But anyone who has experienced the flow knows that the deep enjoyment this experience creates requires an equally disciplined focus.


Through a flow experience, the organization of the ego becomes more complex than it was before. It is by increasing complexity that the ego can be seen as growing. Complexity is the result of two generalized psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies an action directed towards uniqueness, towards separating oneself from others. Integration refers to the opposite direction: association with others, with ideas, and with existences beyond the self. A complex ego is one that succeeds in connecting these contradictory trends together.

The ego becomes more different because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves one feeling more grounded, more skillful. As the climber said, "In fear you look at yourself, at what you have done, it makes you stunned." After each flow experience, one becomes a more unique, unpredictable individual, possessing rarer skills.

Complexity is often thought to carry a negative connotation, synonymous with unpredictability and ambiguity. That may be true, but it is only true when we scratch its meaning with differentiation alone. But complexity also includes a second dimension — the harmony of independent actors. For example, a complex apparatus not only has many separate parts with each part having a different function, but also exhibits high sensitivity because each part is linked to the others. Without integration, a system with many separate parts becomes a mess.

Flow helps harmonize the ego, because in that state of heightened concentration, consciousness is often more orderly. Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and senses are all focused on one goal. The experience is set in harmony. And when a flow ends, people feel more "connected" than before, not only internally but also in their relationships with others and the world at large. In the words of the climber we mentioned earlier: "[There is] no place that arouses the best in a person [more] than a climb. No one is stopping you from putting your whole mind and body under immense pressure to get to the top of the mountain. Your teammates are there, you feel the same anyway, you're together. Who in the twentieth century could you trust more than these people? People who go through the process of educating themselves just like you, following more detailed covenants... Such bonding with others is inherently a state of ecstasy."

An ego with only separation — without integration — can achieve great personal achievements, but runs the risk of getting bogged down in egotistical, self-centered self-centeredness. Similarly, a person whose ego is based solely on integration will be connected and protected, but lack personal independence. Only when a person concentrates an equal amount of mental energy in both of these processes, avoiding both selfishness and conformity, will the ego be able to manifest complexity.

The ego becomes complicated by the flow experience. The paradox is that when we act freely, for the sake of acting ourselves rather than for ulterior motives, we learn to become better than we were before. When we choose a goal and put our whole being into it with the utmost focus, no matter what we do, we will be happy. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is how the ego grows. How Rico was able to extract so much from the seemingly boring work on his assembly line, or as R. got from his poems. It's also how E. overcame her illness to become an influential scholar and a powerful executive. Flow matters because it makes the present moment more enjoyable and because it builds confidence for us to develop those skills and make significant contributions to humanity.

The rest of this book will explore more deeply what we know about optimal experiences: What optimal experiences feel like and under what conditions they occur. While there aren't any shortcuts to flow, it's entirely possible if one understands how it works to change lives — to create more harmony in the experience and to release mental energy that would otherwise be wasted in boredom or anxiety.

Leave a comment