2 min read

Flowing into Immersion

By Paul J. Zak on Dec 14, 2020 8:30:00 AM

Steamed mussels, white wine, and espresso. Mihaly, or Mike as he preferred to be called in America, had lived here for 45 years but his Hungarian heritage was clear from his lunch. Sitting outdoors on a warm day in a Southern California café, my Claremont Graduate University colleague Mike Csikszentmihalyi described how he discovered the psychological state he named “flow” in the early 1970s. He observed and interviewed painters and other artists who described being so absorbed in their work that they lost track of time. They also reported a sense of bliss during the experience. Mike characterized flow as the pleasurable experience of being actively engrossed in a task. This research has been, and continues to be, very influential.

A number of Immersion’s clients have asked us if immersion is the the same as flow. The short answer is no, but the long answer is that they share a number of similarities.

Immersion is a neurologic state provoked by an experience that is unexpected, emotionally charged, narrows one's focus to the experience itself, makes the experience easy to remember, and provokes action.

A key difference between immersion and flow is that immersion need not be active. Watching a movie can be highly immersive, but flow would exclude this passive experience.  Nevertheless, immersion and flow overlap significantly. Experiences in which one’s focus in narrowed, time is evanescent, and one has a sense of euphoria fit the definitions of flow and immersion. They are certainly related.

A key difference between flow and immersion is that the former relies on conscious self-report, something that poorly predicts outcomes. Mike Csikszentmihalyi developed a clever way to measure flow, called the Experience Sampling Method. He gave people pagers and randomly asked them to describe what they were feeling. Now, researchers text people, but you see the problem with this approach: Asking people to describe a powerful psychological state while it is happening takes them out of flow.

Immersion has solved this problem. The Immersion platform captures neural responses passively using a smartwatch. If one records the experience, the Immersion platform will overlay immersion second-by-second onto audio or video files. This allows users to review the experience and discover when they were deeply immersed, the neural analog of flow. These data can be used to induce deep states of immersion by replicating their antecedents. Clients have found, for example, that a 5-minute meditation prior to doing a task can supercharge immersion.

Another area where flow and immersion coincide is during challenges. Challenges that are hard but achievable require full focus and if objectives are reached, are emotionally satisfying. Physical challenges like rock climbing or surfing produce profound immersion.   Mental challenges like writing or coding are also immersive and people often report being in flow when they do them.  Another reason measuring immersion is important is that the brain adapts to challenges. The Immersion platform tells users when it is time to level-up and take on new challenges.

Optimal performance necessitates measuring the right things. You can flow into measuring immersion by signing up for a monthly subscription. Measure what matters: Immersion.

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Paul J. Zak

Written by Paul J. Zak

Paul’s two decades of research have taken him from the Pentagon to Fortune 50 boardrooms to the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. All this in a quest to understand the neuroscience of human connection, human happiness, and effective teamwork.