A reader writes in

I read your ppt slides with interest and wanted to ask about something I’m not sure if you fully addressed. In flow there is a “loss of awareness” and the notion that “awareness” is disruptive to flow.

The notion of flow encompasses so many diverse activities that I find it useful to start with concrete examples. Let’s consider computer programming as a flow activity. In terms of awareness, my experience is that I maintain full awareness of the problem that I am trying to solve but often lose awareness of how much time is passing. Let’s consider a different flow activity. An ice hockey player has an intense awareness of the game but may lose awareness of tangential distractions (like noise from the audience). I think we can generalize from these examples to conclude that the configuration of awareness is important in flow. Flow is facilitated when awareness is aligned with the flow activity and hindered when awareness is scattered or distracted from the activity.

However, in meditation there is “heightened” awareness.

I am a little uneasy with your characterization of awareness as “heightened.” I urge you to listen to Arne Dietrich’s TEDx talk,

In this talk, Arne makes the case that all altered states of consciousness involve a reduction in brain processing. In Dietrich (2003), Arne suggested, and I agree with him, that meditation is typically induced by recruiting most prefrontal processing power for the focusing of attention. This singular focus on attending draws processing power away from other routine prefrontal tasks like daydreaming, causal theorizing, or thinking. Hence, it is reasonable to say that awareness is “heightened” but only as a feint to switch off other prefrontal processing. In meditation, what we hope to achieve, in my opinion, is increased synchronization between our implicit and explicit processing systems.

I wonder if as you explored these topics, if you believe these two elements to be compatible or incompatible?

There are similarities and differences. In both cases, awareness plays an important role in the preparation of circumstances for increased implicit explicit synchronization. However, flow is generally viewed as something that happens during an activity whereas meditation seems to defy simple categorization. More concretely, if we take computer programming as a flow activity then certainly thinking and logical inference are taking place. In contrast, thinking is absent from meditative experience.

I guess the one area I would push on a bit is your closing “thinking is absent from meditative practice.” Some practices have “analytic meditation” awareness of thoughts and their evolution as a part of the practice.

Ah yes, after at least 40 years of academic debate, it seems unlikely that the community will reach an agreement about how to define meditation. That’s why our lab studies transient implicit explicit synchronization (TIES) instead. Even considering our crude ability to monitor activity in the brain, I believe TIES is an objective indicator. Therefore, it is much easier to agree on a definition for TIES than on amorphous notions like meditation. Furthermore, I bet TIES is the essential ingredient that confer to meditation (and flow) their special qualities. This is an empirical hypothesis. If we can develop valid measures of TIES then we can, for example, compare the effects of meditation with TIES versus meditation without TIES.

Cool, thanks, always nice to have objective measures and common definitions. Do you have a link or literature on “transient implicit explicit synchronization”

We probably coined the term, but the idea is pretty clearly described by Berkovich-Ohana & Glicksohn (2014).

Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 231-256.