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February 16, 2014


Csikszentmihalyi worries! Should we?

by Peter Skillen

By Ehirsh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ehirsh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In his latest essay, “The Triumph of the Virtual”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes his initial excitement for video games. He was happy that they engaged kids differently than the passive watching of television but then states that he did “not imagine the engagement offered by the new technology would become a Pandora’s box containing bait for the reptilian brain to feast on”.

Engagement of video games has ‘become a Pandora’s box containing bait for the reptilian brain to feast on’

“The incessant warfare (the child) takes part in is not virtual to the child, it is his reality…at a superficial cognitive level they’re aware the game is only a virtual reality, but at a deeper, emotional level they know it is not. After all, it is happening to them”, says Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi is clearly a world renowned expert in motivation, happiness and creativity. You likely know  his work on ‘flow’. In fact, you are perhaps a real believer and apply it in your educational practice with students.

Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow CC by benarent NC SA

Flow CC by benarent NC SA

“To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.’” Wikipedia

Many schools have ‘flow’ rooms or, at least, try to design educational experiences to engage students in the ‘zone’ – or a state of flow.*

“We are headed for ‘a quantum leap into an abyss of insubstantiality’.”

Csíkszentmihályi fears that ‘in one or two generations children will grow up to be adults unable to tell reality from imagination’. We are headed, he suggests, for ‘a quantum leap into an abyss of insubstantiality’.

What do you think?

*Note: It has been central to my ‘way of being’ in classrooms for many years. I even had my most recent classroom – and, indeed, have this blog called “The Construction Zone’. (‘Zone’ doubles for ‘state of flow’ and for ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD).


8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Feb 16 2014

    My fear is the more immediate dependency on dopamine that games seem to generate, and the inability for some kids to turn that off. What will that lead to?

    • Feb 16 2014

      Yes. For sure. You’ve been reading Sherry Turkle? It’s not just the games – but the immediate response with multiple devices. A concern for sure.

      • Feb 17 2014

        No to Sherry Turkle, but I have been looking into some of the neurochemistry behind addictions that are not, directly, chemical addictions, such as gambling, gaming, etc. That, plus I directly observe the downright ugly transformation in one of my children as they are forced to disconnect, and then that transformation slowly undo as the brain chemistry restores its balance.

  2. Brent Snavely
    Feb 17 2014

    If “neuroplasticity” can be manipulated to improve cognitive function, the converse would also seem to be possible…

  3. Feb 17 2014

    Brent, agreed. Perhaps a lot of this has to do with the concept of ‘free will’. So if one were to have the will, and the desire & ability, to exercise that will to manipulate neuroplasticity – then, we could smile. 🙂

  4. Feb 17 2014

    Tom, thank you for this resource. Yes, there is a lot of evidence about mindfulness these days. It is also becoming ‘de rigueur’ in the K12 education space. For example, Mindfulness Without Borders offers workshops to schools. So does the Mindfulness Institute. also attends to this issue.

    On a personal note, I studied transcendental meditation when I was 20 — before I started teaching at Dunlace. 🙂 That is also when I first learned of Jon Kabat-Zinn – although I didn’t take the MBSR course until a few years ago.

    Now, I am reading a brand new series of essays compiled by John Brockman. The book is called What Should We Be Worried About?

    Check it out. I think you’ll like it. The authors in there are top in their fields. In fact, there is even a discussion about ‘free will’. 🙂


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