Flow And The Machine

“In the future, either you’re going to be telling a machine what to do, or the machine is going to be telling you.” -- Christopher Penn, VP of marketing technology, Shift Communications.

I often talk about the fallibility of the human brain -- those irrational, cognitive biases that can cause us to miss the reality that’s right in front of our face. But there’s another side to the human brain -- the intuitive, almost mystical machinations that happen when we’re on a cognitive roll, balancing gloriously on the edge between consciousness and subconciousness.

Malcolm Gladwell took a glancing shot at this in his mega-bestselle, "Blink." But I would recommend going right to the master of "flow," Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, if you’re interested, "me-hi Chick-sent-me-hi"). The Hungarian psychologist coined the term “flow," referring to a highly engaged mental state when we’re completely absorbed with the work at hand.  Csikszentmihalyi calls it the “psychology of optimal experience.”



It turns out there’s a pretty complicated neuroscience behind flow. A blog post from gamer Adam Sinicki describes a state where the brain finds an ideal balance between instinctive behavior and total focus on one task.

The state, called transient hypofrontality,  can sometimes be brought on by physical exercise. It’s why some people can think better while walking, or even jogging. The brain juggles resources required and this can force a stepping down of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that causes us to question ourselves. This part of the brain is required in unfamiliar circumstances but in a situation where we’ve thoroughly rehearsed the actions required, it’s actually better if it takes a break. 

And that may be the secret of flow. It may also be the one thing that machines can't replicate -- yet.

The Rational Machine

If we were to compare the computer to a part of the brain, it would probably be the prefrontal cortex (PFC). When we talk about cognitive computing, what we’re really talking about is building a machine that can mimic -- or exceed -- the capabilities of the PFC. This is the home of our executive function, where complex decision-making, planning, rationalization and our own sense of self reside.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the part of our brain we rely on to reason through complex challenges like designing artificial intelligence would build a machine in its own image. And in this instance, we’re damned close to surpassing ourselves. The PFC is an impressive chunk of neurobiology in its flexibility and power, but speedy it’s not.

In fact, we’ve found that if we happen to make a mistake, the brain slows almost to a standstill. It shakes our confidence and kills any “flow” that might be happening in its tracks. This is what happens to athletes when they choke.

With artificial intelligence, we are probably on the cusp of creating machines that can do most of what the PFC can do, only faster, more reliably and with the ability to process much more information.

But there’s a lot more to the brain than just the PFC. And it’s this ethereal intersection between ration and intuition where the essence of being human might be hiding.

The Future of Flow

What if we could harness flow at will?  If we could work in partnership with a machine that can crunch data in real time and present us with the inputs required to continue our flow-fueled exploration without the fear of making a mistake?

This wouldn't be so much a machine telling us what to do -- or the reverse -- as a partnership between human intuition and machine-based rationalization. It would be analogous to driving a modern car, where the intelligent safety and navigation features backstop our ability to drive.

Of course, it may just be a matter of time before machines best us in this area as well. Perhaps machines already have mastered flow, because they don’t have to worry about the consequences of making a mistake.

But it seems to me that if humans have a future, it’s not going to be in our ability to crunch data and rationalize. We’ll have to find something a little more magical with which to stake our claim.

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