From monkey mind to calm, ordered consciousness -- even outside of flow? Wrestling with Csikszentmihalyi's assumptions about psychic entropy
Context and background for this topic
In my last post, Applying Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology of flow to the writing of technical documentation, I explained that Csikszentmihalyi says our normal psychological state is one of constant entropy (disordered, unstructured thought). Most people call this “monkey mind,” a term coined by Buddha to refer to the way a monkey swings from branch to branch — similar to our mind jumping from thought to thought.
The whole point of getting into flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, a happiness researcher, is to counter that entropy with a more “ordered consciousness.” Csikszentmihalyi says,
The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy — or attention — is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. (6)
Ordered consciousness is the opposite of psychic entropy / monkey mind. (Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t use the term “monkey mind,” but it seems so much clearer than “psychic entropy,” so I refer to them synonymously.)
I’ve covered a lot of straightforward ground in this series, but they’ve all sort of led up to this larger question of achieving order in consciousness (avoiding a state of distraction). So bear with me as I wrestle with this more abstract topic.
Why accept the monkey mind as a natural state?
Although I like the idea of getting into a flow state, Csikszentmihalyi’s assumption about psychic entropy (monkey mind) being our natural mental state seems like a pessimistic view of human consciousness, in my opinion. I’m not sure I agree with Csikszentmihalyi because that view reduces the value of our most celebrated quality. Why is humanity’s natural state a monkey mind?
Csikszentmihalyi addresses this question in a short section called “Recovering Harmony” (p.227). Anticipating this objection, he phrases it as follows: “Aren’t people born at peace with themselves — isn’t human nature naturally ordered?” This is also my objection. Why shouldn’t my natural mental state be naturally ordered? If it’s disordered, how did it get that way? Was I born disordered?
If we can’t have ordered consciousness outside of flow, and we only experience flow during optimal times, what does this imply about the rest of our time? the bulk of our lives?
Csikszentmihalyi on pre-conscious states
Csikszentmihalyi says flow basically helps us return to a pre-conscious state, almost like that of an animal. Csikszentmihalyi says:
The original condition of human beings, prior to the development of self-reflective consciousness, must have been a state of inner peace disturbed only now and again by tides of hunger, sexuality, pain, and danger. … If we were to interpret the lives of animals with a human eye, we would conclude that they are in flow… (227)
Look over at your cat or dog, and quietly observe their state. Presumably, the animal enjoys peace free from the psychic burdens of self-reflective consciousness. I have a young cat that likes to paw at random objects on the floor as if they were mice. In many ways, the cat gets into a state of flow doing this.
But alas, we humans have the burden of a conscious mind, which leads to psychic entropy (monkey mind). Csikszentmihalyi continues:
The forms of psychic entropy that currently cause us so much anguish — unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt — are all likely to have been recent invaders of the mind. They are by-products of the tremendous increase in complexity of the cerebral cortex and of the symbolic enrichment to culture. They are the dark side of the emergence of consciousness.” (227).
Animals don’t experience “unfulfilled ambition” or get overwhelmed from “pressing responsibilities.” They don’t “weigh possibilities unavailable” or “imagine pleasant alternatives.” They aren’t “disturbed by fears of failure” (228). These characteristics represent the “dark side of consciousness,” which came about due to the “tremendous increase in complexity” of our brains and from an advanced culture.
If the point of flow is to order our consciousness, shouldn’t we ask, how does our consciousness get unordered in the first place? Can’t we just undo the disordering factor instead of always trying to get into states of flow?
So let’s dive more into the topic of consciousness, why it came about, and why it goes awry.
How humans developed consciousness
Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t spend much time on how consciousness is formed (at least not in Flow), and his writing about consciousness is more speculative than evidence-based (due to the nature of the topic), but he does briefly touch on it. He says consciousness likely formed due to the following:
- the “biological evolution of the central nervous system”
- “the development of culture — of languages, belief systems, technologies”
- “the dubious blessing of choice”
- the transition from “dispersed hunting tribes to crowded cities … [which] give rise to more specialized roles that often require conflicting thoughts and actions from the same person.”
- the juxtaposition of many different social roles, reinforcing the fact that all “see the world different from one another. There is no one right way to behave, and each role requires different skills.”
- the “cacophony of disparate values, beliefs, choices, and behaviors.”
- exposure to “increasingly contradictory goals, to incompatible opportunities for action” (230)
The overarching theme here is that as civilization grows complex and multifaceted, particularly in ways that prompt reflection, such as by being confronted with contradictory or opposing views or lifestyles, consciousness increases. These more complex scenarios prompt advanced thought.
Overall, Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t seem too concerned with how humans arrived at consciousness (or an advanced state of mind), only that they do experience consciousness, and the mental state of consciousness is one that drifts toward entropy. Granted, how humans became conscious is one of the big mysteries (and even defining the term usually takes psychologists several chapters), so his lack of a more concrete answer is understandable. However, before dismissing the possibility of a better answer, let’s explore one more theory for how consciousness formed.
Origins of consciousness — the bicameral mind hypothesis
Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow was published in 1990. About 15 years earlier, American psychologist Julian Jaynes published a book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It posits that consciousness is a relatively recent development (just 3,000 years ago), spinning out of metaphoric language.
Jaynes says if you look back several thousand years ago, during the time when the Iliad was composed (about 8th century BC), you don’t see subjective interiority (consciousness) in the characters. The characters don’t introspect in explicit ways that embody the thinking, conscious mind. There’s no Descartes-style mind at work, no Hamlet soliloquy.
Jaynes says that the frequent gods and muses directing events in ancient texts were actually auditory hallucinations from the right hemispheres of people’s brains. The left hemisphere incorrectly interpreted these auditory hallucinations as the voices of the gods. Jaynes called this the bicameral mind (for “two houses”).
As written language evolved, specifically metaphoric language, the bicameral mind started to break down. Those auditory hallucinations, which previously originated from the “gods,” started to be perceived as emerging from the same human mind. People gradually started becoming more conscious, more introspective, pondering and ruminating in their minds. They interacted with the voice in their heads as their own voice.
Jaynes’ controversial bicameral mind hypothesis remains one of the most fascinating theories about the evolution of consciousness. It caused critics to reconsider their interpretations of the frequent appearances of gods and muses in texts like the Iliad. Many started to think that perhaps the gods weren’t literary devices or cultural tropes but rather literal beliefs about what was happening.
Tip: To learn more details about Jaynes’ hypothesis, see Bicameralism, Part 1: The Voice of God and Part 2 from the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast. Or read Jaynes’ original book.
Metaphoric language and consciousness
Despite the intrigue of Jaynes’ bicameral mind hypothesis, there isn’t compelling evidence for it, so it remains a hypothesis. But even putting aside his larger theory, there are aspects to Jaynes’ ideas that are interesting, such as the idea that language’s use of metaphor gives rise to conscious thought.
Jaynes dissects metaphors into metaphiers (the familiar object) and metaphrands (the unfamiliar), arguing that the “most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors.” He defines metaphor in the common way: “the use of a term for one thing to describe another because of some kind of similarity between them or between their relations to other things” (48). But even phrases not typically flagged as metaphors are in fact metaphors. For example, if you say, “a recession is coming,” it assumes that the recession is an object, that it has a means of movement (legs?) and that it is heading in your direction (Watch out, the recession is coming to get you!).
Jaynes says “… metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language.” (48) More importantly, metaphor extends language: “It is by metaphor that language grows” (49). We’re used to “seeing” metaphors as merely literary devices in language, one of many rhetorical techniques available, but Jaynes expands the scope of metaphors to make them the foundation of language and thought itself. Jaynes says:
All of these concrete metaphors increase enormously our powers of perception of the world about us and our understanding of it, and literally create new objections. Indeed, language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication. (50)
By taking us from the familiar to the unfamiliar, metaphoric language expands our perception. Metaphors lead us into unfamiliar territory, which then prompts us into more advanced thought (and eventually consciousness).
The lexicon of language, then, is a finite set of terms that by metaphor is able to stretch out over an infinite set of circumstances, even to creating new circumstances thereby. (Could consciousness be such a new creation?)” (52)
It’s through language and metaphor that we perceive new circumstances, and awareness of these new circumstances inches us toward more consciousness. However, I assume Jaynes’ asks the consciousness question somewhat timidly (in parentheses) because he knows it’s a stretch.
Jaynes also says the symbols in language allow us to assemble and manipulate advanced ideas:
Subjective conscious mind is an analog [such as a map] of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.” (55)
If you consider how mathematical operations (and computer programming) involve converting ideas into symbols that you can manipulate and perform actions against in complex ways, it’s not hard to see how language might perform a similar function. Words act as symbols that we can manipulate in advanced ways, leading to more complex thought.
Externalizing thought through writing
I’m not sure if Jaynes’ is right about metaphoric language and consciousness (can anyone know?), but there’s widespread consensus that language plays a role in the development of consciousness. As someone who frequently writes, I can attest that written language plays a part in promoting introspection.
When you write something, you’re literally making your internal thoughts external. This externalization allows you to see your thoughts more concretely, almost from another point of view. As E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Let more time pass (years, even) to the point that you forget that you’re the author of the written text, and the words become even more external and foreign.
The widespread appearance of E.M. Forster’s quotation reinforces its truth. The more you write, the more likely you are to know what you think. Knowledge of what you think creates self-awareness, and it leads you to deliberate about whether you agree with what you’re reading or not. All of this complexity likely leads toward greater consciousness.
Regardless of how language works, there’s no greater tool for thinking than writing. Not only can you see your thoughts in concrete form but you can also refine the logic of your arguments, trace out more complex trajectories of ideas, build up elaborate narratives, and more. This post is a perfect example. I am writing about a slippery topic and some of the ideas in my mind are fuzzy. I’m using this post to clarify what I think about consciousness and entropy. I’ve edited, re-arranged, refined, and clarified my language in hopes of moving toward a more focused argument. Writing is helping me think.
The first time I became aware of consciousness
Language leads to thought, but it seems like thought alone isn’t enough to trigger consciousness. You need a complex external event to trigger your thinking wheels spinning in ways that make you aware of yourself (as Csikszentmihalyi notes earlier).
Amazingly, I remember the specific moment when I first became aware of my thinking mind, or when I recognized my consciousness. When I was about 5 years old, I had a friend who didn’t talk much. One day I was having lunch at his house. His mother made us a sandwich and chips, and we sat at his kitchen table, mostly eating in silence. While we ate in silence, I started to realize that I could think silently in my mind. I could think whatever I wanted, and no one else could know what I was thinking. Did others have this capability as well? Looking at my friend quietly eating his sandwich, I wondered, was he thinking things in his mind too? Or was his mind blank, without any thoughts other than taking another bite of his sandwich?
In this case, my consciousness was prompted through juxtaposition with another human who acted differently from me. The difference prompted questions in my mind. My experience reinforces Csikszentmihalyi’s argument that when we “… see the world different from one another, [recognizing that] [t]here is no one right way to behave, and each role requires different skills,” it moves us toward consciousness.
I asked my wife if she could remember her first awareness of consciousness. She says when she was a young girl growing up in the Mormon church, someone explained to her the doctrine of polygamy, and she felt repulsed by it. She reacted so strongly that she decided that internally, in her mind, she could believe whatever she wanted and wouldn’t have to follow or agree with polygamy. She realized her mind was a private sphere that was hers alone. No one else could enter the castle of her mind. It was her house, her space, and she could believe whatever she wanted. It was the first time she became aware of her private sphere of thought.
The moment I started introspecting while eating a sandwich with my silent childhood friend, or when my wife realized she could think her own thoughts about polygamy — were these the starting points for a mental state increasingly filled with, as Csikszentmihalyi says, “unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt” (230)? In other words, how do we move from the bright side of consciousness to the dark side of consciousness?
Paradoxes of consciousness
As humans, we usually celebrate our rational faculties. I love to trace and explore ideas in my head. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says the contemplative life leads to the most pleasure: “For contemplation is at once the highest form of activity, since the intellect is the highest thing in us ….” Our conscious intelligence is the highest form of human nature, so maximizing our highest nature leads to the highest form of living.
In fact, Csikszentmihalyi even says philosophy can lead to a form of flow:
… playing with ideas is extremely exhilarating. Not only philosophy but the emergence of new scientific ideas is fueled by the enjoyment one obtains from creating a new way to describe reality. The tools that make the flow of thought possible are common property, and consist of the knowledge recorded in books available in schools and libraries. A person who becomes familiar with the conventions of poetry, or the rules of calculus, can subsequently grow independent of external stimulation. She can generate ordered trains of thought regardless of what is happening in external reality. When a person has learned a symbolic system well enough to use it, she has established a portable, self-contained world within the mind (127)
In other words, the seemingly absent-minded philosopher who is really lost in deep thought, running ideas through logical syllogisms to dissect them to their core and then reassemble them back into a whole, enters a flow state, despite the heightened consciousness. It seems a bit paradoxical, though perhaps there are different types of consciousness, and I haven’t been precise in my definitions.
The entropic mindset Csikszentmihalyi warns against isn’t the philosopher focusing on arguments about abstract ideas, but rather the idle person whose mind isn’t focused on anything at all (monkey mind, not curious mind). It’s “when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns.” (119).
The philosopher’s deep introspection and rigorous examination of ideas, which one might consider the pinnacle of conscious thought, isn’t the same dark consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi says is entropic and unordered. Philosophers get fully immersed and direct their focus on specific subjects, arguments, and other matters of logic and evidence. They immerse so deeply they become absent-minded, staring off into space in catatonic states. Think of this state as the bright side of consciousness, the one that fills you with understanding of the world and human behavior. How then do we go astray with this consciousness and descend into darkness? Is it merely by not having something to focus on? As if by taking your foot off the accelerator in a car, the engine just starts falling apart.
When consciousness trends toward the dark side
Here’s one idea about why we might trend toward the dark side, especially in contemporary times. Maybe the same dynamics that pushed us into the bright side of consciousness can also, if taken to the extreme, push us into the dark side of consciousness. More specifically, increasing the amount of complexity and chaos might propel us into a more intense monkey mind.
Obviously, monkey mind has been around for a long time, but I can’t help but wonder if some technologies have the potential to exacerbate it. Specifically, the internet has the capacity to expose the human mind to a firehose of complexity and chaos. What is the relationship between surfing the internet, specifically doom-scrolling and boredom browsing, and monkey mind?
In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly describes his love for the internet in what is perhaps the most eloquent[ly disturbing] passage I’ve read. He marvels at how the internet compresses randomness into one continuous experience of chaos and beauty:
I am no longer embarrassed to admit that I love the internet. Or maybe it’s the web. Whatever you want to call the place we go to while we are online, I think it is beautiful. People love places and will die to defend a place they love, as our sad history of wars proves. Our first encounters with the internet/web portrayed it as a very widely distributed electronic dynamo — a thing one plugs into — and that it is. But the internet as it has matured is closer to the technological equivalent of a place. An uncharted, almost feral territory where you can genuinely get lost. At times I’ve entered the web just to get lost. In that lovely surrender, the web swallows my certitude and delivers the unknown. Despite the purposeful design of its human creators, the web is a wilderness. Its boundaries are unknown, unknowable, its mysteries uncountable. The bramble of intertwined ideas, links, documents, and images creates an otherness as thick as a jungle. The web smells like life. It knows so much. It has insinuated its tendrils of connection into everything, everywhere. The net is now vastly wider than I am, wider than I can imagine; in this way, while I am in it, it makes me bigger, too. I feel amputated when I am away from it.
I find myself indebted to the net for its provisions. It is a steadfast benefactor, always there. I caress it with my fidgety fingers; it yields to my desires, like a lover. Secret knowledge? Here. Predictions of what is to come? Here. Maps to hidden places? Here. Rarely does it fail to please, and more marvelous, it seems to be getting better every day. I want to remain submerged in its bottomless abundance. To stay. To be wrapped in its dreamy embrace. Surrendering to the web is like going on an aboriginal walkabout. The comforting illogic of dreams reigns. In dream time you jump from one page, one thought, to another. First on the screen you are in a cemetery, looking at an automobile carved out of solid rock; the next moment, there’s a man in front of a blackboard writing the news in chalk, then you are in jail with a crying baby, then a woman in a veil gives a long speech about the virtues of confession, then tall buildings in a city blow their tops off in a thousand pieces in slow motion…. (322-323)
Since the publication of What Technology Wants (2010), more insights about the harmful effects of the internet’s content algorithms have emerged. Algorithms optimize for what gets clicked the most — usually thought-provoking or sensational content. Thus, the firehose of the internet isn’t just randomness, but extreme chaos and complexity that challenges your ideas (by presenting alternative perspectives). The firehose of content shocks you into new levels of awareness, often forcing you to make sense of opposing lifestyles and viewpoints. It’s content that, as Csikszentmihalyi would say, prompts you to “see the world different from one another. There is no one right way to behave, and each role requires different skills.”
On the internet, you see “specialized roles that often require conflicting thoughts and actions from the same person.” You realize that we “see the world different from one another,” that there is “no one right way to behave,” that there are “increasingly contradictory goals” and “incompatible opportunities for action.” In short, the internet offers you a “cacophony of disparate values, beliefs, choices, and behaviors” — streamed right into your brain for many hours a day.
Does the internet become a catalyst for pushing us from the bright side of conscious thought to the dark side? These same forces that brought us into consciousness begin to turn the dial too high?
On the internet, you move from scene to scene as different as night and day, moving across cultural and geographic boundaries without even noticing, being exposed to ideas of every kind, often contradictory, challenging, or upsetting. Maybe this cacophony pushes our conscious brain a bit into overdrive, such that our mental patterns trend toward entropy rather than order. We get too much awareness, too many associations, too many connections.
Kelly’s depiction of his internet experience is one of “beauty” for technology. He enjoys the way so many diverse experiences are juxtaposed into one. But others don’t see it that way. Here is one Amazon reviewer’s description of the internet, riffing off a theme in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows:
The brain, confronted with a glowing screen and the ability to hypertext its way from one interruption to another across the universe of knowledge from what its buddy in Australia thinks of rutabagas, to the spelling of rutabagas to the history of rutabagas to dishes that can be prepared from rutabagas leaves the brain sliding from one fact of surface interest to another fact even less useful, until it occurs to the brain to pursue the prompt on the pop-up menu and check the weather and get off of this slide onto the weather channel where a five minute video on playful seals on San Francisco Bay can be watched for free which does remind the brain that it could slide over to Facebook and find out if anyone “liked” the picture of the family cat posted an hour ago. And many do. Twenty-three “likes,” praise the Lord. (“Why there are so few worth talking to” by John W. Cowan)
In other words, the pattern on the internet promotes unstructured thought. You move from topic to topic by seemingly tenuous association, such that after 30 minutes of browsing, it would be impossible to trace back the logic. This pattern fragments any linear, sequential thought into an endlessly random teleportation into different worlds every minute.
Bo Burnham’s Welcome to the Internet does a perfect job at portraying the frenetic content mishmash of the internet.
Internalizing a 19-second pattern
Putting aside the internet’s cacophonous content, the mere pattern of web-surfing behavior is one that might trigger similar web surfing of the mind. On the internet, one gets pulled across 100 different sites without fully understanding exactly how. A 2014 study found that when people use laptops, “switches occurred as frequently as every 19 seconds, with 75% of all on-screen content being viewed for less than one minute” (The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition, 6). Throw in smartphone behavior on top of this, with its attention-fragmenting notifications, and you get continuous context-switching for most of the day.
If we constantly switch online throughout the day (every 19 seconds), is it surprising that our brain might switch topics every 19 seconds as well? If we teach our brain a pattern, it can learn to follow it.
What I’ve been noticing
This past month, I’ve started to notice an interesting phenomenon. When I try to sleep at night, if I’ve read a book that day (say, 50 pages of something), my mind seems to follow a more linear, sequential pattern, similar to the calm order in which my eyes move left to right across a page, following a larger narrative or argument that an author is making. The act of reading imbues my mind with more order even in a natural, unfocused state.
One researcher explains that the story structure of books can instill a more sequential order in our brains:
Story structure encourages our brains to think in sequence, expanding our attention spans: Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s a good thing for your brain. With this structure, our brains are encouraged to think in sequence, linking cause and effect. The more you read, the more your brain is able to adapt to this line of thinking. (Your Brain on Books: 10 Things That Happen to Our Minds When We Read)
In other words, your brain gets accustomed to thinking in story structures and imprints that same structure in the brain. This helps internalize sequential and causal thinking patterns.
On days in which I haven’t read a book but instead have been immersed online, my brain has a much different pattern. Instead of linear, focused thought, my mind skips around more. I get monkey mind, jumping from one topic to another. If I’m trying to fall asleep, my racing thoughts will keep me up unless I put an audiobook in my ear to focus my attention until I fall asleep.
I might not have noticed this contrast in mental states were it not for this whole smartphone experiment (noted earlier). These past two months, I’ve been more relaxed in my rules about technology use. Earlier on in my experience, however, I adopted strict rules about when I would use a phone, and so on. My journey away from smartphones led me to read a lot more. When I returned to my smartphone (because my family wanted to text me), I relapsed in other ways too, checking sports and news more often. Then my work provided me with a phone, which came equipped with work email and calendar. I started checking work email more often, in addition to checking my own email almost obsessively. I started reading Feedly (an RSS aggregator) more often.
At night I would bring up Youtube.com for entertainment (because it wasn’t Reddit, right?). On Youtube, I even unsubscribed from every channel just to see what the algorithms would serve up, hoping the videos would lose their appeal, but they didn’t. I watched this and that video, usually humor-related, until I was too tired to stay awake.
But when I closed my eyes and tried to go to sleep, thoughts raced in my head. My mind jumped and flittered about from topic to topic. The only way to sleep was to stay up (watching more videos or movies) until I was so tired that exhaustion itself put me out.
The effects aren’t always night and day like this, but it’s noticeable. These experiences led me toward the ideas I’m promoting here.
Two notes – lack of expertise, neurodivergence
I’d like to make a couple of notes. First, I’ve wandered way outside my area of expertise in this long-winded post. As I said at the start, I go off the deep end here. I’m a technical writer, not a psychology researcher. I only veered into this territory out of a desire to reclaim my long-form concentration, especially the ability to read books again, despite a decade of smartphone use that seemed to have pushed me in the other direction.
Secondly, I want to acknowledge that neurodivergent thinkers might not benefit from this post or even this series. I have three family members with ADHD, and I actually spent two afternoons writing this post with some of them trying to do homework at the table. I watched as their amplified attention pulled them into different streams and topics. It’s also difficult to sequence tasks into more linear, long-term periods of focus. It’s not merely a matter of retraining the brain to counter the inattention learned from social apps; it’s much different. So if you’re neurodivergent, the experiences I described in this post might not actually apply.
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Harris Rackham. United Kingdom, W. Heinemann, 1926.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Firth, Joseph, et al. The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry 18.2 (2019): 119-129.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990.
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. Penguin, 2011.
“Your Brain on Books: 10 Things That Happen to Our Minds When We Read.”” Open Education Database. Retrieved Oct 23, 2022.
Continue to the next post in this series: What the DMN and TPN modes of the brain teach us about focus.