Tag Archives: in the zone

Fluid, flow, zone and zen

So we have conscious and unconscious, type 1 and type 2 cognitive processes, default and task related modes, fluid intelligence, being in the flow, being in the zone and the Zen mind. I am wondering which are really the same but just expressed in different semantic frameworks. What might actually be the same physical thing from a different view point. I suspect that these are all ways of expressing various aspects of how we use or fail to use unconscious cognition.

Here was an interesting Scientific American blog (here) by SB Kaufman last January, looking at the relationship between fluid reasoning and working memory. Fluid reasoning works across all domains of intelligence and uses very little prior knowledge, expertise or practice to build relationships, patterns and inferences. How much it depends on working memory is controlled by speed. If the fluid reasoning is done quickly, it requires good working memory; but it can be done slowly with less need for working memory. Is this the difference between quick and deep thinkers, both described as intelligent?

Fluid reasoning does not fit nicely with the two types of cognitive processes: type 1—intuitive, fast, automatic, unconscious, effortless, contextualized, error-prone, and type 2—reflective, slow, deliberate, cogitative, effortful, decontextualized, normatively correct. As type 2 is typified as using working memory and type 1 as not using it, there is an implication that when speed is required for fluid reasoning, more working memory is required and therefore the thinking is leaning towards type 2 processing which is the slower of the two. It is a bit of a paradox. Perhaps what sets apart fluid reasoning is the type of problem rather than the type of process. Maybe the two types of process are ends of a spectrum rather than some sort of opposites. Let’s imagine the reasoning as being little spurts of type 1 process feeding a type 2 use of working memory. This could be a spectrum: at one end continuous type 1 thinking with working memory and consciousness only being involved in the beginning and the end. The other end would be a continuous back and forth as working memory steps through a solution. Let’s imagine that there is little control of efficiency in the type 1 working. The unconscious does not necessarily stick to a plan, while the use of working memory almost dictates a step-wise method. Fluid problems which occur in areas with little expertise, knowledge and practice may tax the type 1 reasoning unless it is closely monitored and controlled with working memory. A ‘step-wise plan’ may restrict and slow down progress on a well-practiced task; not having such a plan, may overwhelm the process with irrelevant detail and slow down an unfamilar task. There may (for any situation) be an optimal amount of type 2 control of type 1 free-wheeling speed.

People talking about ‘flow’ and ‘zone’ tend to acknowledge the similarity in the two concepts. But flow seems less concentrated and describes a way of living and especially working. While zone seems to describe short periods of more intense activity, as in a sport. This is almost the opposite of fluid reasoning in that neither flow nor zone can be achieved without first acquiring skill (expertise, knowledge and practice are basic). This seems to be type 1 processing at its best. In fact, one way to lose the zone is to try and think about or consciously control what you are doing. That is how to choke.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has documented flow for most of his career. His theory of Flow has three conditions for achieving the flow state: be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress (direction and structure); have clear and immediate feedback to allow change and adjustment; have balance between the perceived challenges and perceived skills (confidence in one’s ability for the task). The person in flow is experiencing the present moment, a sense of control, a loss of sense of time and of self-consciousness, with a feeling of great reward and enjoyment. There is an automatic connection of action and perception and an effortless relaxation, but still a feeling of control.

Young and Pain have studied being ‘in the zone’. It is described as “a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability. It is a magical and…special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well. Competition is fun and exciting.” Athletes reporting on ‘in the zone’ moments report: “clear inner process”, “felt all together”, “awareness of power”, “clear focus”, “strong sense of self”, “free from outer restrictions”, “need to complete”, “absorption”, “intention”, “process ‘clicked’”, “personal understanding & expression”, “actions & thoughts spontaneous”, “event was practiced”, “performance”, “fulfillment”, “intrinsic reward”, “loss of self”, “spiritual”, “loss of time and space”, “unity of self and environment”, “enjoyed others”, “prior related involvement”, “fun”, “action or behavior”, “goals and structure”. Zone seems more intense and more identified with a very particular event than flow.

The hallmark of both flow and zone is that it appears to be the unconscious, fully equiped and practiced, in charge and doing the task well and effortlessly. The other thing to note is that the task mode is being used and not the default mode. Introspection, memory and imagination are taking second place.

The flow/zone way of acting is even more extreme in some Eastern religious exercises and also a few Western ones. The pinnacle of this is perhaps Zen states of mind. One in particular is like zone. “Mushin means “Without Mind” and it is very similar in practice to the Chinese Taoist principle of wei wuwei . Of all of the states of mind, I think not only is working toward mastery of mushin most important, it’s also the one most people have felt at some point in time. In sports circles, mushin is often referred to as “being in the zone”. Mushin is characterized by a mind that is completely empty of all thoughts and is existing purely in the current moment. A mind in mushin is free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It does not plan, it merely acts. If you’ve ever been playing a sport and you got so into it you stopped thinking about what you were doing and just played, you’ve experienced mushin.” I find the use of mind with this meaning misleading, but it is clear in the context that they are referring to just the conscious part of the mind when they use the word ‘mind’. It could be replaced with the word consciousness without changing the meaning.

In summary, unconscious control of tasks have been extremely well learned (the learning likely requires conscious thought) leads to states of mind that are valued, very skilled, without effort and agreeable. The default mode is suppressed and the self recedes in importance as do past and future because introspection, recall of past events and dreaming of future ones require the default mode. It is not an all or nothing thing but one of degree.