Does life flow towards flow?

Robin recently described how human brain ‘uploads’, even if forced to work hard to make ends meet, might nonetheless be happy and satisfied with their lives. Some humans naturally love their work, and if they are the ones who get copied, the happiness of emulations could be very high. Of course in Robin’s Malthusian upload scenario, evolutionary pressures towards high productivity are very strong, and so the mere fact that some people really enjoy work doesn’t mean that they will be the ones who get copied billions of times. The workaholics will only inherit the Earth if they are the best employees money can buy.

The broader question of whether creatures that are good at surviving, producing and then reproducing tend towards joy or misery is a crucial one. It helps answer whether it is altruistic to maintain populations of wild animals into the future, or an act of mercy to shrink their habitats. Even more importantly, it is the key to whether it is extremely kind or extremely cruel for humans to engage in panspermia and spread Malthusian life across the universe as soon as possible.

There is an abundance of evidence all around us in the welfare of humans and other animals that have to strive to survive in the environments they are adapted to, but no consensus on what that evidence shows. It is hard enough to tell whether another human has a quality of life better than no life at all, let alone determine the same for say, an octopus.

One of the few pieces of evidence I find compelling comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi research into the experience he calls ‘flow‘. His work suggests that humans are most productive, and also most satisfied, when they are totally absorbed in a clear but challenging task which they are capable of completing. The conditions suggested as being necessary to achieve ‘flow’ are

  1. “One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her ownperceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.”

Most work doesn’t meet these criteria and so ‘flow’ is not all that common, but it is amongst the best states of mind a human can hope for.

Some people are much more inclined to enter flow than others and if Csíkszentmihályi’s book is to be believed, they are ideal employees – highly talented, motivated and suited to their tasks. If this is the case, people predisposed to experience flow would be the most popular minds to copy as emulations and in the immediate term the flow-inspired workaholics would indeed come to dominate the Earth.

Of course, it could turn out that in the long run, once enough time has passed for evolution to shed humanity’s baggage, the creatures that most effectively do the forms of work that exist in the future will find life unpleasant. But our evolved capacity for flow in tasks that we are well suited for gives us a reason to hope that will not be the case. If it turns out that flow is a common experience for traditional hunter-gatherers then that would make me even more optimistic. And more optimistic again if we can find evidence for a similar experience in other species.

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  • I think primate research give us the intuition that other animal agents are not merely longing for the reward, but deeply involved in the process of problem-solving and learning. Maybe all mammalian based cognitive architecture gives rise to flow as a necessary set of neurological/phenomenological states to enhance the allocation of attention or any other relevant cognitive resource that needs to be balanced when the prefrontal cortex performs the regulation of top-down attention and stimulus-guided action. Maybe when there is synchrony between several areas (e.g. cingulate cortex, prelimbic regions), we feel what we call the flow.

    • Michael Wengler

      I would imagine flow goes across a lot of mammals.  I don’t think you can look at a dog “playing” in the yard with kids, other dogs, or you, without seeing the joy of running, the joy of chasing, the joy of searching.  The animal’s posture is alert and erect, it just LOOKS fun.  

      So what kind of evidence is a dog LOOKING like it is in the flow?  Well way more of their mammalian brain is like our mammalian brain than isn’t.  It makes sense that our “mood detectors” started developing long before we were humans or even primates, evolution is generally quite efficient about such things.  Their eyes are a lot like ours, their moods are a lot like ours.  

  • Mitchell Porter

    One should also consider the possibility that the multitudinous worker-bees of the future, rather than finding life pleasant or unpleasant, will be completely unconscious intelligences. 

  • Some people may be more predisposed to experience the “flow”, but it also depends on the working conditions, right? I am not convinced that working conditions in malthusian future will be perfect for flow.

    On the other hand, whatever working conditions there will be in the future, if some mutant em enjoys them and if that makes them more productive, their copies will expand. However, calling this thing “flow” may be stretching the meaning of the word too far. The life in the future might be something that would make all of us scream in horror, and yet some mutant em may enjoy that. Or maybe “enjoy” is also not the right word; maybe such world will give advantage to ems without emotions, or with emotions completely different from what we have now.

  • Dent

    AFAIK, flow is incompatible with distress. Near-subsistence for human-like minds indicates probable distress. In a malthusian scenario, the low-hanging job fruit that fulfill conditions 2 and 3 would be picked quickly, the goal of survival would mostly be met through jobs that don’t fulfill them.

    But there’s one mitigating factor: Assuming these minds can choose not to reproduce, the question becomes why they should. If they do it because they identify with their offspring, there will be a selection effect (i.e. minds who think their offspring will be happy will copy more often than other minds). If they do it because they gain an economic personal advantage, at least that advantage mitigates their own distress, hopefully in a way that is experienced as net-positive. If they do it because a central planning authority orders them to do it, we should not expect malthusian dynamics per se (as that authority could choose to downregulate reproduction rates), but possibly distress from exploitation and power abuse.

    • Michael Vassar

       Are people not in flow when running or fighting for their lives, climbing high mountain peaks, and the like?  If not, how do the states differ.

      • Dent

        Good question. This may be somewhat simplistic, but I assume there’s a difference between distress and eustress, and in my experience, eustress can feel good but distress does not.

        What does losing this existential game feel like? By hypothesis, the challenges are not adjusted to skill level. Barring fairness regulation by authority, someone has to lose.

        Bad survival jobs can also be simply boring, but maybe those are handled by simpler algorithms in the future.

    • Fred Burnaby

       To echo Michael Vassar, I am most likely to enter a “flow” state when playing a squash match in a tournament or while writing a math test, as compared to training for a squash tournament or doing my homework.

      The pattern, to me, suggests that flow is the desirable alternative to distress and comes up in the same kind of situation.

  • It might be possible to ‘trick’ ems into working with a majority of their time without stressing them out terribly.  If you can “rejuvenate” them quickly in software, making appropriate changes to their simulated brain chemistry or such, they could feel as if they just got back from vacation before every shift.

    • Michael Wengler

      Store multiple copies of your ems at different states and monitor their performance storing results indexed on which one is stored.  Then you build a database of which ems/states are good for what kinds of things.  

      In other words, if you have an em that hits it out of the park right after it came back from its total recall vacation to mars, then just boot that copy of that em every day at the beginning of the shift.