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Insight Cascades, pt. 1 — Flow

Published: 2022-10-03

First part of rambling thoughts related to flow, expert intuition, neuroscience and the Tao.

Curiosity is a virtue. Playful creativity is an underrated guide for direction in life. There, that’s roughly what I want to say, yet I feel that words fail me.

This series of posts is unlike anything I’ve ever written.

It is a distillation of the most memorable books, articles, podcasts and conversations I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years. Much of the output has emerged in the wake of personal turmoil. There are more questions than answers.

It’s been particularly challenging to write, as I feel the core tenets of what I want to communicate are non-verbal in nature. It gets a bit woo. A big reason I wanted to share this stuff is because I’d love to spar with more people on these topics, thus feedback is very welcome!

Narrow focus as a tool for widening scope

Let’s start with flow: a state of consciousness where one is completely absorbed in an activity, especially something involving creative abilities.

There’s a sense of unity with the environment, a loss of self-consciousness, an ongoing sense of discovery. Even though you’re expending energy, it feels effortless. It’s rare and precious. For me, it is an aid to connect with a greater sense of meaning in life, learn important skills faster and improve expert intuition.

In order for the flow state to occur, there needs to be clarity of information. No ambiguity or vagueness. Feedback needs to be tightly coupled: no big time lag to detect a response from the environment after an action. A resistance of some sort also seems essential, the task needs to be difficult enough and errors need to be meaningful.

Some activities in which I’ve experienced flow: playing the guitar with friends, dribbling past a defender and putting in a perfectly weighted cross to the striker, finally solving a maddening programming problem, chipping away at some unsatisfying paragraphs until they form a few good sentences. When it happens, it sometimes seems to boost completely unrelated things: an acute observation about a relationship, a mental block disappearing, a keen sense of direction.

An insight cascade triggered by the mental state. An insight that leads to another insight that leads to another insight, as described by John Vervaeke, a lecturer at the University of Toronto.

I named this series of posts after the phenomenon, as it’s the most accurate description of how these topics have developed in my mind, with very positive effects on my overall sense of being.

This kind of thing seems to be connected to why hunter-gatherer groups with a shaman outcompeted groups that didn’t. Amid all the singing and dancing and storytelling, shamans would alter people’s sense of what matters, improving their capacity for making sense of the world.

Implicit learning and limits of flow

Flow is also helpful in bringing about implicit learning, a concept that has been studied since the 1960s and one that has replicated well. It means a process where information is learned outside of conscious awareness.

Implicit learning seems to be where intuition comes from.

Sometimes explicitly describing a pattern hinders learning. For example, how close do you stand next to a person at a funeral? There’s a lot that goes into it: status, closeness to the person, past history and so on. It’s actually quite difficult to describe in its entirety, and going to a funeral school probably would not have been helpful. Yet you know how to do it.

Still, flow only gets us so far. For example, difficult video games can invoke a flow state, but that might be quite limited in terms of bringing about an overall satisfaction in life.

Ultimately, flow is not a virtue but a form of pleasure. While flow is a desirable state of mind, promoting it might not lead to desirable qualities of character; just as likely it could yield an atomised society of sophisticated hedonists with gaming addictions and virtual-reality sickness.

Jonathan Rowson in an essay on chess.

It’s helpful to learn to flow where meaning is being made. Preferably dealing with living things.

The three principles of clarity, feedback and meaningful errors seem helpful in cultivating the right kind of intuition. If you’re a rock climber, you will find out whether you’re genuinely right or wrong quickly.

Let’s delve into intuition in the next chapter.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Kasper Viita