Flow State in the Ecological Approach

Since I have started digging into the rabbit hole that is the ecological approach, it is interesting to revisit topics and concepts that I had previously learned and known about, and see how they fit into the ecological approach. It’s kind of like when you drink alcohol the first time, and then you want to try everything that you’ve done sober while you’re drunk to see how different the experience is. Today I thought about “flow state,” and decided it would be fun to try that while drunk – I mean through the lens of the ecological approach. 

In general terms, flow state is when you are fully immersed and focused on the activity that you are doing, and you are able to perform at your peak level without conscious intervention. If you’ve ever been “in the zone,” you were probably in a flow state. While flow state is sometimes characterized as a mystical or spiritual concept, it is definitely a real thing, and generally considered desirable and necessary if you want to perform at your highest level in a sport or activity. The tricky part is getting into a flow state in the first place, which is a problem about which many books have been written, and everyone has an opinion. I’m not going to talk about that in this article, I’m just going to give a brief overview on what I see as the information processing view vs the ecological view on this phenomenon. 

The way that it has always presented to me and I have understood it in the past is from the information processing standpoint. At first it seems counterintuitive, if you are relying on a mental model and there is always a processing step done by your brain between perception and action, then how can you enter a state in which you are constantly acting without consciously intervening? The in-model answer is repetition; you repeat all necessary motor programs until you can execute them automatically in as short a time as possible. From there, you must work to enter a flow state in order to be able to carry out those quick decisions and motor programs. Flow state becomes a higher ideal, in which you have moved past the need to consciously intervene, because you’ve done that already and now your body has all of the programs that you need. Flow state is the next step in the linear progression from isolation, to intensity, to variation, to full speed implementation in the activity. 

Before we get to flow state from an ecological approach standpoint, we can already spot an issue with this model – variation in movement. You start with the isolated “ideal” movement, then try to add variety, but if the automatic motor program idea is correct, then you need to practice each variation of the action until automatic, and only then can it be executed in a live situation. However, this is not what we see in any sport, including fencing. Actions done in free sparring or tournament bout situations are all different, and never look exactly like any platonic ideal that anyone has come up with. There are too many variations to account for every possible one and train via repetition, variations are infinite and each individual action will be slightly different even if they look the same. 

So what does flow state look like from an ecological standpoint? Well, in a flow state, we are constantly perceiving and acting based on our changing environment, without top-down intervention from our conscious mind, which just happens to be exactly how the ecological model says we perceive the world! It seems to me that from an ecological perspective, instead of being a high ideal that we can strive to reach, it is our baseline state that we get once we strip everything away. 

So the question that I would have in mind in response to this would be, if flow state is just how we naturally act, then why is it so difficult to achieve, shouldn’t we be in a flow state all the time? It’s difficult because stress and anxiety exist and make us act in sub-optimal ways. When we are in a tournament and worried about losing (or not winning, or embarrassing ourselves in front of our peers, or disappointing our coach, or just acting in an unfamiliar environment, etc), it is easy to let our conscious mind take over and try to make executive decisions for the body, which it sucks at doing. We do this because we want to be in control, and we think being in control will allow us to make better decisions and succeed, even though it won’t. Things like focusing on winning or focusing on what your feet or knees are doing will also break your flow state. These are not things that we normally think about when acting, they are artificial constructs that we are adding to the situation ourselves. 

Another thing we can think about with regard to flow is the idea of skill level. One of the things that can break a flow is if one is doing something that is too difficult. In the information processing view, this would be because you have not yet pre-programmed enough automatic motor programs via repetition. How does this square with the ecological approach? Well, when we think about perceiving and acting in the ecological model, we are not picking up cues, clues, or stimuli from the environment, we perceive affordances, IE invitations to act. The affordances we perceive change based on our physical abilities and the skills we acquire. Think about the handrail, to a normal person a handrail affords stability or guidance while walking down a set of stairs, but to a professional skateboarder it affords doing cool tricks. The average person does not have the skillset to perform the tricks that the skateboarder can, so they do not perceive that affordance. Now imagine someone who is outclassed in a fencing match. As the match goes on and they can’t do anything, they are unable to perceive any affordances for landing a hit, because they lack the tools, experience, or athleticism to do so, the sword looks big and the target area looks small. In this case, flow would be broken, because they can’t perceive any opportunities to act, and instead act in random ways, throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping something sticks, as first time fencers often do.

Thank you for indulging me in this little thought experiment. I wish I could say that thinking about flow state this way makes it easy to achieve, but unfortunately that is not the case, it’s still extremely difficult. Luckily, there have been tons of books written about the subject, some of which might be helpful. 


After writing this, I decided to see what Rob Gray had to say about the topic, if anything (I purposefully waited until after getting my thoughts out to look it up). In fact he does, he addresses the topic in episode 23C and episode 58 of his Perception-Action Podcast. I recommend listening and getting it in his own words, but here is a quick summary:

  • He questions the usefulness of the “flow state” construct, since many features of flow are the same as features of good performance. Also, some of the purported ways of inducing flow, IE intense concentration, are also results of flow itself, so it becomes circular; you need flow to induce flow. 
  • He reviews a few studies on flow:
    • One with golf players after they have recently had success. They reported two different kinds of flow, “letting it happen” and “making it happen.” Letting it happen occurred in the middle of the performance with no specific onset stimulus, while “making it happen” occurred at the end of a performance, when there was a specific goal that needed to be met in order to take a big win. 
    • The other measured effort of people who were playing a driving simulator using objective means, heart rate and eye movement. They practiced on a medium difficulty track, then played an easy, medium, and difficult track. The effort level increased linearly with the difficulty of the track, supporting the “making it happen” idea. 
  • He also questions the design of studies related to the topic. Many rely on self-reported data from the athletes, which could be related to an event that happened a long time ago, and could include leading questions. The driving simulator study did use objective data, but it was only a measurement of effort, which is only one aspect of flow among many others. 

I think it’s important to note that these podcast episodes are from 2016 and 2017, about 5 years ago at the time of this writing. It would be interesting to see if there have been any further studies related to flow since then, or if Rob has changed his opinion. 

Personally, I took it for granted that flow state is a thing that exists. I have definitely experienced it, both in fencing and in doing things like playing video games. Before looking into it, I would never have described it as “effortless,” as I am often exerting a great amount of effort, for example playing a competitive video game that I am trying to win (and probably losing).