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).
Endogenous opioids are induced when we eat, drink, have sex, and relax. Their affective correlate, or how it ‘feels’, is a sense of pleasure.
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)
The Psychology of Rest
The Psychology of Incentive Motivation
Meditation and Rest, from International Journal of Stress Management, by this author
Berridge Lab, University of Michigan https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/berridge-lab/