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It is well known that athletes often reach a state of grace known as "the zone," where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappearing into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Diane Roffe-Steinrotter, who won a gold medal in skiing at the 1994 Winter Olympics, said after she finished her turn at ski racing that she remembered nothing about it but being immersed in relaxation: "I felt like a waterfall." If this optimal state seems special, that's because it is, but it is not unique. Over three decades of research has shown that rock climbers, chess champions, surgeons, basketball players, engineers, managers, and even filing clerks, experience such a state of total absorption in an activity, normally an activity that is challenging yet not too difficult, and which is perceived as worth doing. (And which is being done well.). Researchers named these kinds of experiences, experiences of "flow," following some of the subjects who used the term as a metaphor to describe their feelings while involved in their favorite activities. It often feels like effortless movement: flow happens, and you go with it.
Despite the fact that we can all recognize this important phenomenon once it is described, the term "flow" has yet to enter the popular vocabulary. Flow is often described as having no phenomenology, since we are not aware of feeling anything while it happens. Yet it clearly does feel like something, since it is manifestly a pleasant state. Indeed, some researchers argue that it is a crucial element of happiness. But the very existence of flow has largely gone unrecognized. Talk of things like being in the zone suggests a faint awareness of the phenomenon, but the very absence of a word indicates just how faint that awareness is. Brian Bruya's, Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action, brings together an impressive collection of essays that attempt to demystify the phenomenon of flow.
The essays tackle the phenomenon by focusing on one of its key aspects, namely that of effortless attention. Effortless attention has largely been neglected by cognitive science and neuroscience. In the main this has been because most researchers assume that effort increases as the demands of attention and action increase. As Bruya points out in his introduction, attention and action require effort, and, under normal circumstances, the higher the demands of a course of action, the greater the effort required to sustain a level of efficacy. However, there are times when attention and action seem to flow effortlessly, allowing subjects to meet an increase in demand with a sustained level of efficacy but without an increase in felt effort – even, at the best of times, with a decrease.
The conditions required for attention to become effortless have been well documented in previous research, in particular by one of the founders of the field, Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi. In his co-authored essay with Jeanne Nakamura, "Effortless Attention in Everyday Life: A Systematic Phenomenology," Csiksentmihalyi clearly shows that effortless attention happens when the activity being carried out by the subject (a) consists in clear, sequential, short-term goals, (b) provides immediate feedback for the subject, and (c) consists in a balance between opportunities for action and the subject's ability to act. The authors further show that effortless attention consists in subjects having a decreased sense of self-consciousness, as well as feeling more in control, more relaxed, more involved in the activity, and as if they are putting their skills to more use. Lastly, Arlen C. Moller, Brian P. Meier, and Robert D. Wall, in their contribution, "Developing an Experimental Induction of Flow: Effortless Action in the Lab," comprehensively show the ways in which effortless attention is effected by the intrinsic/instrumental motivations of the subject, personality factors and the level of autonomy support for the activity.
These essays nicely describe the phenomenon of effortless attention and the conditions in which it takes place. The most original essays, however, provide possible explanations for the phenomenon of effortless attention. That is, why, under the above conditions, does felt effort not increase with the demands of the activity? For what reason, does the activity feel effortless, despite the demanding nature of the activity? Joseph T. McGuire and Matthew M. Botvinick in their essay, "The Impact of Anticipated Cognitive Demand on Attention and Behavioural Choice," offer an interesting explanation of the relationship between felt effort and attention. They argue that subjective effort involves unexpected changes in cognitive demand. Unexpected increases in the demands of an activity cause feelings of increased effort in dealing with those demands.
McGuire and Botvinick's theory has considerable explanatory power. Indeed, it provides some explanation another important aspect of effortless attention explored by several other essays in the collection. The theory helps to explain why subjects who carried out activities with effortless attention often perform better than those who carry out the same activities with effortful attention. Both Gabriele Wulf and Rebecca Lewthwaite's essay, "Effortless Motor Learning?: An External Focus of Attention Enhances Movement Effectiveness and Efficiency," and Marci S. DeCaro and Sian L. Beilock essay, "The Benefits and Perils of Attentional Control," show that automatic, non-deliberative, processes, that often result in effortless attention, also result in better performance than rule-base, deliberative processes, that often result in effortful attention. James H. Austin ("The Thalamic Gateway: How the Meditative Training of Attention Evolves toward Selfless Transformations of Consciousness") and Arne Dietrich and Oliver Stoll's ("Effortless Attention, Hypofrontality, and Perfectionism") contributions emphasize similar findings. This makes sense according to McGuire and Botvinick's theory: activities that result in effortless attention are cognitively demanding in the same way that activities that result in effortful attention are; however, subjects can further (accurately) predict the particular ways in which the former activities are demanding, and therefore respond appropriately, but are unable to do so for activities that require conscious deliberation.
Lastly, it is important to note that McGuire and Botvinick's theory is consistent with leading neurobiological theories of the feeling of agency. A large and growing body of evidence shows that whenever we are about to carry out a certain action, we form a representation of what our bodily senses should perceive when that action is executed. This representation, often referred to as a "forward model," is then compared with the actual changes that take place in the body as we move. The feeling of agency may arise from this matching process. If a match occurs, we feel in control. If a match doesn't occur, it's because our bodies didn't move as we predicted they would, and that results in an experience of being passively moved by an external source. Comparing these theories of felt agency with McGuire and Botvinick's theory of felt effort emphasizes the key role that changes in cognitive demand play in the phenomenon of effortless attention. That is, it may be that when we act in ways that we expected to, we feel as if we are in control, but that this may still feel effortful insofar as we did not expect the increasing level of cognitive demand required by the activity; alternatively we may act in ways that we expected to, and therefore feel in control, but this control may feel effortless insofar as we expected the changes in cognitive demand required by the activity.
Indeed, Joshua M. Ackerman and John A. Bargh highlight this feature of effortful attention in their illuminating essay, "Two to Tango: Automatic Social Coordination and the Role of Felt Effort." Ackerman and Bargh note that we are passively conscious of our actions when we experience flow, claiming that "a person in a state of effortless attention and action may be experiencing something like a minor out-of-body experience." We still feel control of our actions, in some sense, yet our actions largely happen automatically, without any need for conscious deliberation.
The essays by Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, Bernhard Hommel ("Grounding Attention in Action Control: The Intentional Control of Selection"), and Arlen C. Moller, Brian P. Meier, and Robert D. Wall's ("Developing an Experimental Induction of Flow: Effortless Action in the Lab") contributions also emphasize the importance of automaticity. Hommel's example of a skier attending effortlessly to curves and bumps as needed to maintain success, illustrates the importance of pre-established action programs for carrying out certain kinds of skilled activities.
Brian Bruya's impressive contribution, "Apertures, Draw, and Syntax: Remodeling Attention," further illuminates the kind of automatic activity that can result in effortless attention and flow. Bruya clearly outlines how information and pre-established action programs constantly competes for our attention. For this reason, focused attention tends to be rare. However, Bruya explains how focused attention can be achieved either through the inhibition of competing information, which is often effortful, or from all-encompassing information dominating attention without effort. The latter kind of focused attention is the kind of effortless attention experienced in moments of flow. Bruya further shows that the kinds of activities that are most likely to result in this kind of focused attention are those that are both moderately "formal" and "syntactical." The action programs that constitute formal activities have very narrow parameters, such as in each movement performed by a traditional ballerina. The action programs that constitute syntactical activities are heavily constrained by the other action programs that make up those activities, such as in the tightly choreographed dance performed by the ballerina. Thus, acrobatics may be a highly formal activity, but not highly syntactical, whereas chess may be highly syntactical activity, but not highly formal. Activities that tend to result in effortless attention are those that are both moderately formal and syntactical, such as sports.
Together these essays provide a substantial amount of insight into the phenomena of flow and effortless attention. Firstly, they emphasize the importance of distinguishing between effort and attention. Whereas researchers tend to assume that attention and effort increase proportionally with the cognitive demands of an activity, the phenomenon of effortless attention shows that, under certain conditions, this does not take place. Secondly, many of the essays note these conditions under which effortless attention takes place, such as when an activity is cognitively demanding, and a subject's actual performance matches the expected cognitive demands of the activity. Thirdly, several authors highlight the role of pre-established, automatic, action programs in producing the conditions required for effortless attention, including the kinds of automatic activity required.
Beyond these themes, the collection of essays also includes essays on the empirical study of flow and the role of flow in our practical lives. Fredrik Ullen, Orjan de Manzano, Tores Theorell, and Laslo Harmat's essay, "The Physiology of Effortless Attention: Correlates of State Flow and Flow Proneness," outlines the physiological correlates of flow, and C. Moller, Brian P. Meier, and Robert D. Wall's contribution ("Developing an Experimental Induction of Flow: Effortless Action in the Lab") shows that flow is readily measurable.
In terms of the practical implications of research into flow, Michael I. Posner, Mary K. Rothbart, M. R. Rueda, and Yiyuan Tang's essay, "Training Effortless Attention" argues that flow activities can be influenced through environmental factors, and therefore can be learnt. Lastly, Edward Slingerland's essay, "Toward an Empirically Responsible Ethics: Cognitive Science, Virtue Ethics, and Effortless Attention in Early Chinese Thought" impressively argues in favor of flow and effortless attention forming the foundations for normative ethics.
One problem with such a broad collection of essays is that it is hard to know which essays to read if you are concerned with particular aspects of effortless attention, and, indeed, how the insights from many of the essays relate to each other. Although Brian Bruya's introduction is very helpful in this respect, the essays could still have been structured into different sections depending on their content. This, however, is a minor point, in an impressive collection of insightful and original essays.
© 2011 Sam Wren-Lewis
Sam Wren-Lewis (PhD student at the Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds)