The crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe: Mindfulness, Flow, and Dimensional Emotion Theory


Here’s a question that’s been bouncing around in my head for some time now: are mindfulness and flow related?

At first glance, it’s hard to see any relationship. Mindfulness is almost like a meditation exercise where a person shifts their attention to being in the moment and avoiding distractions. It’s an extremely heightened sense of self. Flow is when you get lost in a task completely, and your sense of self dissolves. Mindfulness is explicitly actively sought, flow is explicitly an emergent property.

And yet I can’t shake this idea that they’re very, very similar. Here’s why:

There are several ways to conceptualize emotions, but the two main camps are “discrete emotions” and “dimensional emotion.”  Discrete emotions theory argues that we have some finite set of emotions that are unique from each other. Dimensional emotion theory argues that we label emotions, but in reality all emotions are related and can be described as existing in some kind of dimensional space.


Valence, arousal, and dominance represented by SAM. Also useful for a hyper-niche Halloween costume.

I fall into the dimensional emotion camp, and typically conceptualize emotions as existing on three dimensions: valence, arousal, and dominance. In most cases, dominance is ignored since valence and arousal have such profound explanatory power. This is a bit abstract so let me give some examples:

  • joy would be high valence, high arousal
  • rage would be low valence, high arousal
  • depression would be low valence, low arousal

Not to be confused with a high valance.

With these examples, I think you can see how we move around this dimensional space. “Negative” emotions are given a low valence score, “positive” emotions are given a high valence score. Emotions that are evocative of feeling energetic are given high arousal scores, and emotions that are evocative of a lack of energy are given low arousal scores.

While this is mere conjecture, I would suggest that flow and mindfulness could both be placed similarly on the dimensional space: above-neutral valance, below-neutral arousal. First off, this is an odd space to be in to begin with: it’s hard to think of words for emotions that would be high valance but low arousal. In fact, a famous database of rigorously tested images used to induce reliable emotional responses (IAPS) doesn’t have anything in that category. Secondly, why would the same or similar emotional space be used to describe such subjectively different emotional experiences?

And thus we reach the crux of the biscuit: the apostrophe. The important part is the part that’s missing: dominance.

Dominance is a way to express who is in control: you or the emotion. Panic is low dominance because the emotion is controlling you, but anger is high dominance because you are cognitively engaged with the object d’frustration. (These are clumsy definitions, but they’ll suit the purposes of this post. Just know that there’s plenty more to read on the topic.)

Again, conjecture, but it seems to me that a possible key difference between flow and mindfulness is to be found on the dominance dimension. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that mindfulness might be the most salient example of a highly dominant emotional experience, given that it’s the active manipulation and engagement with emotion. Flow, on the other hand, might be low on the dominance dimension because of the profound and signature loss of sense of self.

I’d love to test these hypotheses, but I haven’t quite figured out a way to do it yet (or at least, in a way that benefits me as a doctoral student studying media). I’ll keep thinking. If you have any thoughts, please let me know.

If psychology were easy, people wouldn’t write music about it.

“Well I’m not so well acquainted
With the topography of your mind
I need a detailed description
A representation of some kind”


Transportation, Presence, and Flow in Bowie’s “TVC 15”


David Bowie is a weird guy. I mean, let’s make no secrets about it. But let’s talk about the song I’ve linked above called “TVC 15.” (With visuals primarily from a movie he starred in called The Man Who Fell To Earth.) According to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia, the song was inspired by Iggy Pop’s (drug-fuelled) fear that Bowie’s TV would swallow Iggy’s girlfriend. And so Bowie elaborated and expanded on the story so that the TV is holographic. The girl crawls in and the narrator thinks about doing the same himself. Kind of sounds like a Lt. Barclay episode of TNG.

Lt. Barclay, about to do something dumb with the holodeck.

So anyway, “TVC 15” is an interesting song because with subtly different interpretations of the lyrics, we can find the theories transportation, presence, and flow. First, here are the lyrics:

Up every evening 'bout half eight or nine
  I give my complete attention
  to a very good friend of mine
  He's quadraphonic, he's a,
  he's got more channels
  So hologramic,
  oh my TVC15 one five
  I brought my baby home, she
  She sat around forlorn
  She saw my TVC15, baby's gone, she
  She crawled right in, oh my
  She crawled right in my
  So hologramic,
  oh my TVC15
  Oh, so demonic,
  oh my TVC15
Maybe if I pray every, each night I sit there pleading
"Send back
  my dream test baby,
  She's my main feature"
  My TVC15, he just
  Stares back unblinking
  So hologramic,
  oh my TVC15
  One of these nights I may just
  Jump down that rainbow way, be with my baby, then
We'll spend some time together
  So hologramic, oh my TVC15
  My baby's in there someplace
  Love's rating in the sky
  So hologramic,
  oh my TVC15

The reason it’s possible to poke at all three of these theories with one song is its ambiguity, and the power of interpretation: If we start with a literal interpretation, the happenings are science-fantasy: a girl literally crawls into a ‘hologramic’ TV. And, well, that doesn’t help us at all. So let’s call it metaphor – she doesn’t literally crawl into the TVC15, she just watches it nonstop. First, let’s focus on transportation. Transportation happens when the audience is drawn into the narrative of a mediated message. It’s not about technology, it’s about the storytelling itself. So right off the bat, this doesn’t seem like a good fit since the narrator touts the technological prowess of the TVC15. However, that could be a red herring or even the narrator could be mistaken. Though, now I’m speculating and supposing content that isn’t expressed in the song. But we’re slightly more interested in learning about these theories than accurate interpretations of these lyrics. For the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that the narrator is mistaken about the mechanism of the girl’s intense focus on the TVC15. She’s not captivated by the hologramic projections, or the rainbow waves. She’s taken by the stories presented on the TVC15, so much as she feels like she is a part of that world and the narrative becomes essentially real while she is in the moment. Though, as I said, with the information presented in the lyrics, transportation may not be a great fit to describe what the girl and the narrator are experiencing.

Next, let’s look at presencePresence describes an immersive state much like transportation, but is not solely about the narrative. It also has to do with the technology employed and the person’s ability to use the technology. Presence is when the person feels more than just in the narrative world, but a part of it and that they have a sense of agency. For example, a person could be less likely to feel presence when reading a book than playing a video game because a book is decidedly less interactive. But the media need not be interactive to induce presence: a 3D horror movie that makes the audience duck when the masked lunatic throws an ax towards them could be an instance of presence. If the audience didn’t think the ax portrayed by the movie was present, they wouldn’t move to avoid it. It feels like the girl and protagonist are in “TVC 15” might be experiencing presence because they are making choices with and within the mediated environment. She crawls in and gets lost in it. Had the lyric been about her getting pulled in, it wouldn’t suggest a choice but a compulsion. But here, she and the narrator have the ability to choose. Presence seems like a good fit.

Finally, let’s investigate flow. Flow is a positive experience of deep concentration. I often hear people talk about it as being “in the zone.” Let’s say a passionate birdwatcher – an ardent ornithologist, if you would like a little alliteration – sets out at 2pm to scope out the rare Buruk, a bird of prey. The birdwatcher gets set up with their binoculars and starts watching. Next they look up, it’s suddenly 6pm! Where has the time gone?

The suit is to… blend in? Maybe he’s pigeon watching.

Flow is more than just intense focus. It’s where an person’s skill closely matches the difficulty of the task. They are challenged, but not over taxed. But here we are talking about a watching, essentially, a high-tech TV. It’s practically a one-way street, right? A person has information presented to them and it just happens. Not so much, actually. The narrative and technical structure of the media needs to be comprehensible to the viewer for it to even have a chance for being enjoyable. Furthermore, flow is a state of losing not just sense of time but the sense of self. The girl “crawl[s] right in” the TVC15, which metaphorically could mean she’s lost herself.

Let’s reflect on some common experiences. Shows designed for very young children like Thomas The Tank Engine are sometimes difficult for a more mature mind to enjoy: the stories are incredibly simple and predictable. The pacing is slow. The dialog is basic and flat. That’s because as we mature, we learn more about how narratives, TV shows, and movies work. For example, we begin to develop an implicit understanding of what a montage means, whereas that could be very confusing to a very young mind. On the flip side of that, I am willing to admit that sometimes I see an art film that is far too complex both in narrative or technical prowess for me to appreciate. My skill is too far below the difficulty of the task for me to enjoy it, let alone become enthralled by it and enter into a state of flow.

So going back to “TVC 15,” it seems like the girl could just as easily be in a state of flow instead of experiencing presence. Personally, flow tips the scale in my mind. The reason being is that it accounts for the massive amount of time the girl spends watching. Presence doesn’t require long exposure, but it is a common ‘symptom’ of flow. We can assume that a regular TV wasn’t captivating enough of an experience – not challenging enough – but the TVC15 ‘hologramic’ display is what drew her in, causing her to lose herself in the narrative.

So there you have it: “TVC 15” just might be describing a state of flow.