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Evolutionary flow

An interview with:

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi


Q: In your books The Evolving Self and Finding Flow, you speak about evolution, particularly about human evolution. Could you define what you mean by "evolution"?

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI:  At the most abstract level, what I mean by "evolution" is the increasing complexity of matter, which results in increasing possibility for consciousness. Here I'm differing from the view of [French Jesuit paleontologist] Teilhard de Chardin. He thought that rocks had a consciousness appropriate to their own material organization. I don't know whether they do or not, but his view was that whenever there is matter organized in some system, there is a commensurate level of consciousness, which reaches its apogee in the human nervous system being as it is the most intricate system, where you can code and store information of all different kinds. Smells, sights, inner feelings, and thoughts can all get stored because there is enough space, and the units are connected so that you can begin to draw parallels and see similarities and develop cause-and-effect relationships and so forth.

So you have this system that is very complexly organized, very intricately differentiated, and very integrated. Those are the two dimensions of complexity that you always see in evolution: differentiation and integration. Differentiation allows you to use different parts, for instance, different cells in your brain, different neurons to store information. And at the same time, these differentiated cells are connected to each other, or integrated, so that they can talk to each other, so to speak. Okay? They can exchange information. This is one way to talk about evolution: the process by which matter becomes more complex, allowing for more complex consciousness.

Then, of course, we see the results of humans becoming conscious begin to extend outside the body. And that's where we begin to see the evolution of culture, where we are able to store information not just in the brain but also in cave paintings and buildings, and then books and computers, etcetera. That begins to enlarge the amount of information about the universe that we can, in principle, deal with.

But I don't think the direction of evolution is laid down in any sense. We, having become aware of what is going on, have to decide for ourselves to what end this information should be directed and where it should be going. And I think that from the abstract level, the signposts for those decisions are again differentiation and integration. You want a future where people are free to develop whatever unique blueprints they carry in their genes, and you want that freedom to blossom as much as possible, but at the same time, you want each person to see that they are part of something much greater. That's where the integration comes in—it starts with feeling that you belong to a family, to an ethnic group, to a church and to a nation. But unless you realize that you're also part of all the living systems and the planet—that there is something beyond all of this that we can sense—unless you're part of that, then evolution would not be very successful, as far as I can tell.

Q: What kinds of things catalyze evolution?
Csikszentmihalyi: That's a good question. In the past, of course, there have been random changes like asteroids hitting the earth, which killed off a certain type of species and then allowed another one to take over. There's also an explanation that would say that it's really entropy that runs evolution, in the sense that all species try to get as much out of the ecosystem as they can, with the least amount of effort. And that would fit with the second law of thermodynamics [that all systems tend to disorder over time]. If there was no entropy, in other words, if things did not tend to decay and dissolve in competition with other forms, then a better form would not necessarily stand out and become widespread. Okay? You could claim, therefore, that it is because this constant competition for survival eliminates the worst forms that better forms are able to be recognized, endorsed, and developed.

For example, here comes someone who, instead of having to run after a deer, can go on a horse. They are expending much less energy getting their deer meat, so the horse becomes suddenly very popular. The Plains Indians in America adopted horses within a relatively short time of when the Spaniards introduced them. They saw how useful they were, how much energy they could save. And the same with rifles. This principle, I think, applies mostly to technological evolution, to the evolution of tools, the evolution of technologies that are adopted because they defeat entropy to a certain extent. They save you energy; that's why you adopt them. And then, if there is any species that can find a way of getting more energy out of the environment than others with less effort, then that is the species that will have an advantage for a certain period. This is probably the most reductionistic view—that evolution would be based on entropy itself.

I believe in Occam's razor* however, I'm not endorsing this view. I'm just saying this is one way that people have explained how evolution is catalyzed.

Q: Are there other views that you endorse more?
Csikszentmihalyi: Well, I can see entropy as being the original impetus for adopting different things, but I think that when we come to humans, who have this consciousness, then a different set of rules begins to apply. And those are the rules that come out of actually reflecting on experience, reflecting on history, on what happens around humans. And that reflection tells you, "Wait a minute, this is not all we can be, this is not all we can do. There are better ways of doing it." And at that point, you have the possibility of getting beyond what you learned before. A lot of art, literature, religion, and philosophy is born out of this need to go beyond what you were before.

Some people say we have been able to reflect on our own thinking for only about three thousand years. Once that happened, the old rules of evolution began to change. We're no longer subject to the determining influence of the genes as much as we were. We are no longer subject to the determining influence of our social/cultural environment as much as we were before. We are no longer determined by entropy as much as we were before. This is a fairly recent step in evolution. Very recent, considering how long it took us to get, let's say, from Lucy [our early ancestor] to Homer's writing of The Odyssey—it was millions of years. Then suddenly, bingo. So this is a very new game. And there are lots of mistakes that we made, that our species is making, but I think it's a tremendous opportunity, too.

Q: So this new catalyst for evolution is inherent in humans?
Csikszentmihalyi: I think it's inherent in this particular being that has this way of processing information, that has this very complex brain. And so yes, it is inherent in humans. I don't think anybody put it in us. That's how I would differ from, let's say, a religious interpretation where the assumption is that we have been infused with some form of a soul from outside. Whereas I think what we call "soul" is generated by the complexification of our body, essentially our brain.

When you look at the pre-Christian version of "soul," you see that what they meant wasn't so much a soul that was a different substance infused or injected into the body. It referred to a quality in a person who was able to use surplus energy for the benefit of others, not needing to get it all for himself. I came to the conclusion that "soul" is really our way of thinking about not devoting all of one's psychic energy to maximize oneself in any form, whether it's getting comfortable, rich, famous, or wealthy. Some of that energy is also devoted to somebody else's or something else's well-being, or advantage, or goal. So that kind of thing is "soul" as far as I'm concerned. That's the leading edge of evolution, where you don't need to consume all your energy for your own purposes, but you can devote some of that energy for something that will benefit others, including the planet.

Flow for Evolution
Q: In your research, you have explored what you call "flow," or optimal human experience, as having an important relationship to evolution. Could you explain this?
Csikszentmihalyi: My hunch is—and, of course, there is no proof of this—that if an organism, a species, learns to find a positive experience in doing something that stretches its ability; in other words, if you enjoy sticking your neck out and trying to operate at your best or even beyond your best, if you're lucky enough to get that combination, then you're more likely to learn new things, to become better at what you're doing, to invent new things, to discover new things. We seem to be a species that has been blessed by this kind of thirst for pushing the envelope. Most other species seem to be very content when their basic needs are taken care of and their homeostatic level has been restored. They have eaten; they can rest now. That's it. But in our nervous system, maybe by chance or at random, an association has been made between pleasure and challenge, or looking for new challenges.

Q: So we have a relationship between pleasure and the desire to be challenged further?
Csikszentmihalyi: Yes. Like most species, we have developed connections in our nervous system between eating and pleasure and between sex and pleasure. If we didn't have these connections, we probably wouldn't eat as much or reproduce as much. Survival to a certain extent depends on finding pleasure in those things that are necessary for survival. But when you begin to enjoy things that go beyond survival, then there's more of a chance to transform yourself and to evolve. And since the state that I call "flow" depends on increasing skill and increasing challenge, then it leads toward complexification, which means greater differentiation and integration, of the organism.

Q: Let's go back to "flow." Could you explain what it is?
Csikszentmihalyi: I did my doctoral dissertation, back in the early sixties, on young students at the Chicago Art Institute. One thing that I noticed—and I knew also from my own experience—is that when they started painting, they almost fell into a trance. They didn't seem to notice anything, and they just moved as if they were possessed by something inside themselves. When they finished a painting, they would look at it, and they'd feel good for about five or ten minutes and then they'd put the painting away and not look at it much after that. What became important was the next canvas.

And so, obviously, there is something in the process of getting involved with the painting that is so attractive that it overrides almost everything else, except maybe the need to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom. So I tried to understand what psychologists have written about this kind of thing, this state of complete involvement. And there really wasn't much. So I saw that this was something about human behavior that psychologists have largely neglected. And when they have studied it, they have essentially interpreted it as a means to an end, without looking at it as a motivation in itself.

In the early seventies, I spoke with chess players, rock climbers, musicians, and inner-city basketball players, asking them to describe their experience when what they were doing was really going well. I really expected quite different stories to emerge. But the interviews seemed in many important ways to focus on the same quality of the experience. For instance, the fact that you were completely immersed in what you were doing, that the concentration was very high, that you knew what you had to do moment by moment, that you had very quick and precise feedback as to how well you were doing, and that you felt that your abilities were stretched but not overwhelmed by the opportunities for action. In other words, the challenges were in balance with the skills. And when those conditions were present, you began to forget all the things that bothered you in everyday life, forget the self as an entity separate from what was going on—you felt you were a part of something greater and you were just moving along with the logic of the activity.

Everyone said that it was like being carried by a current, spontaneous, effortless like a flow. You also forget time and are not afraid of being out of control. You think you can control the situation if you need to. But it's hard because the challenges are hard. It feels effortless and yet it's extremely dependent on concentration and skill. So it's a paradoxical kind of condition where you feel that you are on a nice edge, between anxiety on the one hand and boredom on the other. You're just operating on this fine line where you can barely do what needs to be done.

Since then, colleagues have interviewed by now ten thousand people around the world—women who weave tapestries in the highlands of Borneo, meditating monks in Europe, also Catholic Dominican monks, and so forth. They all said these same things. So "flow" seems to be a phenomenological state that is the same across cultures. What people do to get into that state varies enormously, but the experience itself is described in very similar ways.

Q: So do you see flow as a positive force for evolution?
Csikszentmihalyi: From the point of view of the individual, it's a very positive experience because it does provide the most memorable, intense enjoyment in life. But, it's not a simple story because there are two dangers with flow in terms of development or evolution. One is that at the individual level it can become addictive to the point that a person becomes increasingly dependent on one set of challenges, and when those challenges are exhausted, the person is left helpless. For instance, one thing that has always struck me is how many of the great chess masters broke down into various forms of neurosis after they beat everybody else in the world and there was nowhere else to go. So that's one danger, at the individual level—that you stunt your development as a person.

At the social level, the danger is that you end up finding flow in challenges that are zero sum, that is, that somebody has to lose for you to win. For instance, war can produce flow if you are on the front line, and everything is clear, everything is focused, and you know exactly what you want to do, and so forth. So many people come back from war to find civilian life very boring and dull compared to their front line experience.

Q: So how does flow work to further evolution?
Csikszentmihalyi: In a sense, flow is what drives this human need for going beyond what we have. In creativity or optimal experience, I have found that it is always a struggle, and the struggle has to do with essentially opening yourself up and yet delving deeply into yourself. Here are these two processes—differentiation and integration—which have to go hand in hand for complexity to evolve. So I see flow as a very important dynamic in the evolution of complexity. It gives you the incentive, the motivation, the reward for going beyond what you have. But it does not give you an ethical direction, so I would say it has to be flow with soul.

*Occam's razor: The philosophical and scientific rule stating that the simplest of two or more competing theories or explanations is preferable.

Mihalyi Cikszentmihalyi was interviewed for EnightenNext magazine by Elizabeth Debold

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