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

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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.

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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
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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”