I've been wondering how dual-process theory, which is described in Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", relates to mindfulness and the state of being in the present moment and the flow experiences coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

  1. Dual-process theory describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts, as described on Wikipedia:
  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious
  1. Mindfulness is defined on Wikipedia as follows:

Mindfulness is "the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment", which can be trained by meditational practices.

  1. The flow or zone experiences, on the other hand, are defined as follows:

In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

How do these relate? Do they overlap, mutually exclude each other or are the same thing or can exist at the same time independently?

Are there any brain studies that would compare the brain's response under each of those states?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci. Thanks for an interesting question! You may find this interesting: cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/9610/… $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr Apr 27 '15 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the link! I should probably add that I am not a cognitive scientist and am aware that I may be trying to compare completely different things. If that's the case, it'd be great to hear how these differ and how can one understand them better. At the moment I think that all three concepts could partially overlap, but it's not clear to me how. $\endgroup$ – ThamP Apr 27 '15 at 16:03

Short answer: Dual-process, mindfulness and flow theory are related by way of attention theory. Two previous posts that may be of interest are "What is the relation between concepts, constructs and measures?" and "How can we realize when a sociological question is impossible to answer?".


This is an apt example of what Thomas Kuhn would have called a question of commensurability. In normal terms, commensurability means the extent to which we can or cannot talk about two or more theories within a common framework, while incommensurability is a fancy way of saying we're comparing apples to farming equipment or dress shirts. In order for two theories in the cognitive sciences to be commensurable, they generally need to satisfy two criteria:

  1. A common conceptual denominator.
  2. At least one common construct.

If they satisfy these, then can look for comparable ways of operationalizing and measuring these comparable constructs that can be related to the common concept. In other words, two theories are comparable if they are conceptually related AND conceive of this concept in some at least partially related way.

Dual-process, mindfulness and flow theory: commensurable?

In this case, there is a clear common conceptual denominator, and that is attention, although they differ in how they express that denominator. For Kahneman and Tversky, there is a generalized resource allocation mechanism which produces qualitatively different modes of thinking; for mindfulness, there exists a discrete mental state partly characterized by a particular attentional pattern; for flow theory, there exists another discrete mental state partly characterized by another attentional pattern.

We can therefore talk about these theories in principle, although how effective our ability to do so turns out to be will depend on the merits of the underlying theory of attention. For example, it is meaningful to ask whether meditational practice involves fast or slow thinking, or whether flow states may be considered a form of meditation, and so forth, but only insofar as we can state those questions in terms of a third (attentional) theory. If one of the theories had assumed that attention was infinite, for example, it would be incommensurable with the other two.

Concluding remarks

A direct three-way comparison of these theories does not exist in the literature. It is possible that someone has directly related one theory to the other for each combination of theories, but it would take three fairly extensive literature searches (dual-process/mindfulness, dual-process/flow, mindfulness/flow). Even if these comparisons actually exist, summarizing them all would almost certainly be beyond the scope of a single SE answer, so I will leave it at this generalized answer.

I think your question about whether these theories are related by neuroimaging evidence is a good intuition, but establishing that similar brain areas are involved in the same behavior does not provide evidence that these are the same, because brain function is dynamic and areas therefore 'have' many functions. It's not just about what areas are active, but also when they are active, in what order they are active, the exact quality of the activity and where the areas are getting input from and sending output to.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the last sentence. Really important for everyone to grasp. Every other day you see some study linking a brain area to a behavior, but it's important to understand the limitations of such studies $\endgroup$ – user1993 Jul 6 '17 at 8:06

A novel procedure for linking flow and mindful states, quickly refutable with a good swift kick.

The ideal for any scientist with a great idea is to be able to explain it in a minute, and to confirm or falsify it as quickly. The world record for this arguably goes to the English philosopher Samuel Johnson, who rejected Archbishop Berkeley’s argument that material things only exist in one’s mind by striking his foot against a large stone while proclaiming, “I refute it thusly!”

Here is a similarly novel and useful idea that can be confirmed or refuted with a proverbial large kick, and can also be easily explained through affective neuroscience (links below).

Basic Facts: Endogenous opioids are induced when we eat, drink, have sex, and relax. Their affective correlate, or how it ‘feels’, is a sense of pleasure.

Fun Fact: When we are concurrently perceiving some activity that has a variable and unexpected rate of reward while consuming something pleasurable, opioid activity increases and with it a higher sense of pleasure. In other words, popcorn tastes better when we are watching an exciting movie than when we are watching paint dry. The same effect occurs when we are performing highly variable or meaningful activity (creating art, doing good deeds, doing productive work) while in a pleasurable relaxed state. (Meaning would be defined as behavior that has branching novel positive implications). This is commonly referred to as ‘flow’ or ‘peak’ experience.

So why does this occur? Dopamine-Opioid interactions: or the fact that dopamine activity (elicited by positive novel events, and responsible for a state of arousal, but not pleasure) interacts with our pleasures (as reflected by mid brain opioid systems), and can actually stimulate opioid release, which is reflected in self-reports of greater pleasure.

Proof (or kicking the stone): Just get relaxed using a relaxation protocol such as mindfulness, and then follow it by exclusively attending to or performing meaningful activity, and avoiding all distraction. Keep it up and you will not only stay relaxed, but continue so with a greater sense of wellbeing or pleasure. (In other words, this is a procedural bridge between mindful and ‘flow’ experiences that are not unique psychological ‘states’, but merely represent special aspects of resting states.)

A Likely Explanation, as if you need one! A more formal explanation from a neurologically based learning theory of this technique is provided on pp. 44-51 in a little open-source book on the psychology of rest linked below. (The flow experience discussed on pp. 81-86.) The book is based on the work of the distinguished affective neuroscientist Kent Berridge, who was kind to review for accuracy and endorse the work.

Implications for meditation and stress management: The modulation of pleasurable affect induced by rest is not dependent upon a species of attention (focal meditation, mindfulness meditation), but is ‘schedule dependent’, or correlates with the variability of contingencies of reward and the discriminative aspects of incentives (i.e. their cognitive implications). In other words, affect in resting is not static but dynamic, as the opioid systems activated by resting protocols are always modulated by dynamic or phasic changes in dopamine systems that are induced by concurrently perceived positive act-outcome discrepancies or expectancies.


Rauwolf, P., et al. (2021) Reward uncertainty - as a 'psychological salt'- can alter the sensory experience and consumption of high-value rewards in young healthy adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (prepub) https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxge0001029

The Psychology of Rest https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

The Psychology of Incentive Motivation https://www.scribd.com/document/495438436/A-Mouse-s-Tale-a-practical-explanation-and-handbook-of-motivation-from-the-perspective-of-a-humble-creature

Meditation and Rest, from International Journal of Stress Management, by this author https://www.scribd.com/doc/121345732/Relaxation-and-Muscular-Tension-A-bio-behavioristic-explanation

Berridge Lab, University of Michigan https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/berridge-lab/


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