Catalina Islands. Made with iPhone. (c) Om Malik

“When people become engrossed in what they are doing, they enter a state that is called ‘flow. Flow can be achieved by engaging in mental or physical activities that we value and that require us to concentrate fully to use our skills.

When we enter a state of flow, we become absorbed and focused, and we experience momentary enjoyment. When we leave a state of flow, we are often surprised by how much time has passed.

Learning which activities might enable someone to enter a state of flow requires asking questions and listening. People tend to thrive on healthy engagement and challenge. “

John Dattilo, Penn State.

A handful of things get me in the “flow.”

I find myself in the flow when observing, thinking, and writing — primarily for private consumption. For a while in my life, my public writing brought me into a flow state. I would know that it is time for me to return to the writing arena when I find myself in the “flow.”

For now, I am just busy filling up my journal.

My camera is an excuse for me to slow down and observe. But in reality, I am just out of my routine. It is an opportunity to be alone with the rest of the planet. When I am out in nature and watching the planet’s rhythms, I start getting into the “flow.”

Photographs are simply the outcome of that state of “flow.”

What gets you in the flow? Is there a magic formula for flow?

Yale University researchers seem to think so.

“These principles underlying flow may be unconscious but they are not random — and work within a biological system that can be described in mathematical terms,” said David Melnikoff, formerly of the Yale Department of Psychology now of Northeastern University, corresponding author of the paper published in in the journal Nature Communications today.

The basic equation underlying their computational theory of flow is relatively simple: it computes the mutual information between desired end states and means of attaining them, a quantity expressed as I(M;E). Exercise is one example they use to illustrate the concept.

When people exercise, they have a desired end state, say, losing five pounds. People also have a means of attaining their end state, perhaps jogging. Whether they jog and how often and far is the means and is informative of whether they will achieve their end state.

“Our theory says that the more informative a means is, the more flow someone will experience while performing it. The formula is a way of mathematically quantifying exactly how informative a particular means happens to be.”

Optimizing I(M;E) is also a key goal of artificial intelligence programmers. In essence, AI experts are trying to build machines that behave like people in flow states, the authors argue.

Yale University Research

April 18, 2022. San Francisco.