Flow and Terror Management Theory

In The Denial of Death (1973) and subsequent work, Ernest Becker essentially refashions the Cartesian split: rather than dividing human beings between mind and body, Becker posits a symbolic/material dualism. One part (the “first”?) is material, dies, and requires that certain material necessities are fulfilled (eating, sleeping, shelter from elements, etc.). The second part is symbolic, creates culture and technology, and more or less tries its hardest to bury the material element. For Becker, the impetus for this burial is a fear of death (ironic as that sounds): in short, the material part is a constant reminder of our finitude, and the abstract, symbolic part, uncaged by the confines of materiality, is a means for escaping the inevitable coffin.

As such, we invent “hero systems”, which provide individuals with a sense of self-esteem and in a sense immortality – we feel we can outlive our bodies through our actions and accomplishments. We accumulate wealth, invent religions and technologies (or write blog posts for that matter), create “civility”, etc., because through these processes we abstract ourselves, and somehow make ourselves better and more dignified than the part of us which defecates and dies. Moreover, through accomplishments (for instance winning a war medal), we reach beyond the grave, and much like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 , hope that we leave behind a legacy, especially if it contributes to a particular conception of “the greater good”.

I’ve been thinking about flow (immersion) in its relation to Becker’s work and Terror Management Theory (TMT) generally. This is very rough but here’s what I have so far.

The state of flow mimics an existence which is unaware of its finitude or mortality, and perhaps unaware of itself at all. In short, it mimics a sort of animal (i.e. not human) existence. Yes, these demarcations are sketchy, and of course we can never know for certain how non-communicative agents experience their world, but perhaps we can still use these distinctions for strategic purposes.

Flow is a sort of “non experience”, since one cannot actually experience flow, or at least not in the conventional sense. As soon as one becomes self-aware (i.e. that he or she is in a state of flow), this act of self-awareness jolts him or her out of it. If animals live in this state of non-experience, with limited self-awareness (the material), then I think we can perhaps link Becker’s symbolic/material dynamic with the experience of flow.

Flow is the point at which the symbolic usurps the material, partially or totally. Indeed, flow appears to be a disembodied experience, although I think there are varying degrees and types of immersion. Anyone who has run a marathon or exerted themselves for long periods of time knows that the mind often goes (has to go?) some place else, so to speak, and this “wandering” protects us from experiencing the body in all its limitations (the pain in one’s legs and lungs and back, the sometimes overwhelming urge to stop, etc.). And on that note, what is it that keeps us going? Well, pride I’d say, in one form or another.

However, this state of disembodied existence is not always beneficial. Tragically, as video games become increasingly ubiquitous, stories about gamers “forgetting” about the material elements of their existence are becoming increasingly common. This article details one such case, where a 28 year old South Korean man died from “exhaustion” after gaming for 50 hours. This is flow taken to its most extreme (at this point in time), when the symbolic and representational completely usurps the material.

I think this at least partially explains the appeal of intense immersion, or flow. I can’t think of any immersive experiences which are painful or unpleasant in themselves; immersion seems to be a rather effective escape from pain. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I think we can generally say that flow is a positive experience, and indeed, is one which everyone desires in one form or another, through gaming, exercise, watching television or movies, or reading a good book, etc.

This is very rough and scattered, so any ideas would be much appreciated. Thanks.

Jason