Memory: Floods and Flows

December 9, 2009

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been collecting and analysing data on the question, “What is the good life?” since 1967. He explores issues such as the structure of everyday life, develops well-known concepts such as psychic entropy and challenge-skill ratio (CSR). MC’s flow model and the Experience Sampling Method blend the science of pyschology and folksy-self-help (1997) He reveals that the moments of flow where an individual experiences a good challenge-skill ratio, are likely to happen at work (2000:121-123) although they can also occur when an artist is at work in her studio, or a Nintendo players is up to her game.

Memory: Floods and Flows

“The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about the concept of flow, which is the feeling we have of being completely focused on and absorbed in the work we are doing. An artist painting a picture who is so engrossed in his work that he becomes unaware of himself and the passage of time is in a state of flow. Flow can also be attained when a surgeon performs a difficult operation in which she has to use all her abilities and skills. What Csikszentmihalyi has tried to do is identify the circumstances that elicit flow. He reasons that if we analyze situations in terms of the challenges they present and the skills of the person involved in them, we find that flow arises in contexts characterized by a high level of challenge and skill, in which capacity of the doer exactly matches the demands of the task being done (Klingberg 2009:167-8).”

“Considering Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram as a cognitive map with north at the top, it is in the northeast sector where we find the state of flow. When the challenge exceeds skill, we get stres. When skill exceeds challenge we get a sense of control, which becomes boredom as the level of challenge drops. Exchange “skill” for “working memory capacity” and “challenge” for “Information overload,” and perhaps we have a map illustrating the subjective side of the information demand. When this demand exceeds our capacity, we experience the relative attention deficit due north of the map. However, we should not simply avoid these demands, for when they are too low we become bored and apathetic. In other words, there is a reason for us to cater to our need for stimulation and information. It is when demand and capacity, or skill and challenge, are in a state of equilibrium that the situation is conducive to flow. And perhaps it is precisely here, where we exploit our full capacity, that we develop and train our abilities (Klingberg 2009:168)”

“While our working memory load exactly matches working memory capacity and we hover around the magical number seven, the training effect is its most powerful. Now that we know this, it is up to us to control our environments and reshape the work we do to our abilities. Let us hope that we can learn to perfect the compass that will show us where to find balance and help us navigate into the northeast corner of the map, where we can feel the flow and develop to our full capacity (Klingberg 2009:169).”


1. Csikszentmihalyi is pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high-ee”.

2. This image was adapted by Maureen Flynn-Burhoe (2009-12-) from the three following sources: Original concept: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1999. Wikipedia graphics 2009:168:Figure 15-1 in “The Information Flood and Flow.” and a digital photo of a compass used by a great-great grandfather…

3. “Figure 15-1: adapted from Csikszentmihalyi (1997) cited in Klingberg (2009:168).

“Csikszentmihalyi’s map of how different mental states can be conceived as a product of challenge and skill.”

Bibliography and Webliography

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. 1975. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

“They concentrate their attention on a limited stimulus field, forget personal problems, lose their sense of time and of themselves, feel competent and in control, and have a sense of harmony and union with their surroundings . . . They cease to worry about whether their activity will be productive or whether it will be rewarded . . . They have entered a state of flow (Csíkszentmihályi 1975).”

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1997. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, Howard. 1983. Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, Daniel. 1995. Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books. p.91

Klingberg, Torkel. 2009. “The Information Flood and Flow.” The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. Trans. Betteridge, Neil. Oxford University Press.

Vittersø, Joar. 1997. “Review of MC (1997).” 2000. Journal of Happiness Studies. 1:121-123.



(Csikszentmihalyi 1997), Klingberg (2009:168), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arousal

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