Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ideomotor Action and Flow

In psychology, the concept of 'ideomotor action' suggests that the more you think about something, the more likely you are to actually do it, a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

For instance, when on a diet, studies show that simply thinking about the food makes you more likely to eat the food. Or when you are typing, if you think about messing up, you increase your chances of screwing up while typing. 

On the flip side, I feel most productive and happiest when I reach a psychological flow -- a state where I become so immersed in my work that everything simply else falls away. The work is challenging enough for me to derive a sense of fulfillment yet also solvable within the limits of my abilities. This state is the opposite of ideomotor action where you are self-consciously evaluating something or aware of what you are doing. It seems to me that most people live for this flow and derive great joy from it: the dedicated student who plays the violin for hours, the bodybuilder who lifts for hours, the programmer who codes late into the night. 

So for me, reaching a state of flow is an immersive experience without self-consciousness. Similar to how I enjoy myself the most in social scenes by being 'in the moment'.

Yet interestingly, what distinguishes humans from all other animals is this exact self-awareness and the ability to abstract oneself in one's mind (thinking about yourself thinking about yourself...). I would argue that a computer can never become self-aware because whatever logic that underlies the computer inherently precludes self-awareness of that logic (I haven't googled this though, so I'd love to hear arguments). Self-awareness empowers us to empathize looking from outside-in at our own actions. Or to analyze situations objectively and make adjustments based on our assessments.

It's curiously strange to me how something so essential to human productivity (the ability to be self-aware and improve oneself) can also handicap us.


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