Our new book got a starred review in Publisher's Weekly!
Robert Young Pelton's Licensed to Kill: A Review

Flow & Deception

In June, when I was blogging Wolfram Research's New Kind of Science Conference, I did a post on three books which, when read together, lead me in interesting directions. I later used the blog post as a kind of introductory set piece for a one-hour talk I gave at Readercon in July.

Lies Well, I've found another pair of books. I'm just beginning to bounce them off of one another to interesting effect. The books are: Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit by Charles V. Ford, M.D. and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The first of these two is a delightful journey through the psychological landscapes of salesmen, politicians, and lawyers, hypochondriacs and con men. It treats the subjects of deception good-humoredly, yet rigorously. While there is a fair amount of moralistic fun to be had in this book reading about the exploits of the notorious, the book also makes one conscious of the deception involved in saying "good job" to every picture scrawled in crayon and attempted cartwheel. No one gets away in this book.

Ford has a lovely epilogue that concludes:

In one of those rare instances when intellectual honesty rears its head above the ugly sea of self-deception, I must confess that others have demonstrated at least equal insight and have often communicated with greater style. It seems that we must continually rediscover the truth.

FlowFlow is a foundational book for the contemporary psychological movement that is focused on the study of human happiness and how to attain it. I'm about halfway through. "Flow" is another term for what the author calls "optimal experience."

. . . we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions when it happens, we feel a deep sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

That is what we mean by optimal experience. . . .

Csikszentmikalyi argues in the book that attaining this state tends to involve controlling the focus of one's attention, usually when working toward a self-defined goal, and that in such moments of concentration, one loses awareness of distractions. He argues that the state of flow is a tool by which one can achieve personal liberation. While the author does grant that the flow state can be addictive, that it can be attained in socially unacceptable circumstances, and that well-meaning people attaining a flow state during their work may in fact be working towards our destruction, in general he holds it as above and distinct from all other sources of human pleasure. Also, I think, he essentially argues that the flow state is a more effective way of finding longterm happiness than the usual things that motivate people such as sex and money. The author makes the usual disclaimers about flow in an of itself being value-neutral, but it is clear that he esteems the pursuit of the flow experience much more highly than the pursuit of sex or money.

This is the first time I have read about "flow" directly, though I have seen it referred to in pop-neurology books by others (Howard Gardner. I think?). And while I strongly identify with the author's descriptions of the joy of flow, and am myself strongly motivated to seek out the flow experience, I am not at all sure that he is right to set it apart from and above other sources of pleasure and objects of desire.

Regarding darker sources of pleasure, Csikszentmihalyi remarks:

. . . the underground system of forbidden pleasures run by gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers, which is dialectically linked to the official institutions, promises its own rewards of easy dissipation -- provided we pay. The messages are very different, but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a social system that exploits its energies for its own purposes.

Why exactly flow should be expected to be exempt from exploitation by social systems seems to me an interesting question. Is any source of human pleasure exempt from that? It would seem to me that if a reward circuit exists, a way will arise for it to be exploited. Flow may be a better and more reliable source of human happiness that heroin, but why is there any reason to believe that the psychological state of flow cannot be exploited?

And here is where reading these two books together gets interesting. There is a very specific attentional feature to flow states to which Csikszentmihalyi returns again and again: a focused awareness, a narrowed concentration -- what my husband described in me as a "hawk-like focus."

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions . . .

Now combine that with all the complexities of deceitful human social interaction as described by Ford, and your protagonist is headed for a real George-of-the-Jungle moment, swinging serenely through the jungles of intellectual experience headed straight for that TREEEEEEE. "Optimal" experience carries with it specific vulnerabilities. So perhaps it also carries with it specific opportunities for exploitation.

Secondly, there are moments in these two books when it seems like they could be describing the same person from radically different perspectives. The continuing emphasis on the importance of the feeling of mastery, as explained in Flow, has unsettling resonances with Ford's accounts of the lives of impostors and pathological liars.

Also, mastery, set in the context of the narrowing of perceptions, which could also be framed as a form of self-deception, is an interesting psychological state indeed. Also, it's hard to say that what one person would call "flow" might not be called "hypomania" by someone else. Mastery, as he uses the word, seems to be an inner experience rather than something externally verifiable, the feeling of power, the feeling of control.

I'm only halfway through Flow. We'll see where the second half takes me.

UPDATE 9/1: Well, I had a go at the second half of the book, but I'm having the problem that Csikszentmihalyi seems to be trying to shoehorn most other forms of healthy pleasure into the notion of flow. Or maybe I'm just irritable and suspicious because he doesn't answer my objections. And of course the book was written years ago, so there's no particular reason to expect that he should. So I put it down and instead have been reading Robert Young Pelton's new book Licensed to Kill, which I am quite enjoying so far.