Researchers have a formula for getting in the flow

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Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

The immersive and often exhilarating experience of “flow” while playing sports, making art, or working is a much sought-after state of mind associated with peak creativity and productivity, which is why artificial intelligence programmers and human resource departments alike are eager to find ways to cultivate it.

But can you really order up the ingredients to achieve such a subjective experience?

Yale University psychologists say yes: They have developed a of flow, and argue that it is possible to enhance immersion and engagement in almost any task by manipulating a few key variables.

Ryan Carlson, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, Paul Stillman, an associate research scientist in marketing at the Yale School of Management, and David Melnikoff, formerly of the Yale Department of Psychology now of Northeastern University, published their formula April 26 in the journal Nature Communications.

“These principles underlying flow may be unconscious but they are not random—and work within a biological system that can be described in mathematical terms,” said Melnikoff, corresponding author of the paper.

The basic equation underlying their computational theory of flow is relatively simple: it computes the mutual information between desired end states and means of attaining them, a quantity expressed as I(M;E). Exercise is one example they use to illustrate the concept.

When people , they have a desired end state, say, losing five pounds. People also have a means of attaining their end state, perhaps jogging. Whether they jog and how often and far is the means and is informative of whether they will achieve their end state.

“Our theory says that the more informative a means is, the more flow someone will experience while performing it,” Melnikoff said. “The formula is a way of mathematically quantifying exactly how informative a particular means happens to be.”

Exercise companies such as Peloton are adept at creating an immersive experience by making means highly informative. For instance, they use exercise output to rank users on “leader boards,” which dramatically increases the amount of information riders get from their means of exercising.

“There are thousands of positions on the leader board where a rider could finish—thousands of possible end states—and the rider’s performance reveals which of these end states will occur,” Carlson said. “That is a lot of information, far more than you’d normally get from a workout. When is the last time exercising allowed you to rule out literally thousands of possible end states?”

Optimizing I(M;E) is also a key goal of programmers. In essence, AI experts are trying to build machines that behave like people in flow states, the authors argue.

Melnikoff, Carlson, and Stillman say in theory the formula for flow can improve performance for almost any task, a potentially valuable tool for human resource departments seeking to increase worker interest and productivity. But they also realize some inherent limitations using these principles to improve outcomes of tasks—personal interest and talent.

For instance, Melnikoff knows a master gardener who says she experiences in creating beautiful landscapes, a passion he does not share.

“Because I’m an incompetent gardener, the means of gardening provides zero information. I already know the end state—a dead garden,” he said.

More information:
David E. Melnikoff et al, A computational theory of the subjective experience of flow, Nature Communications (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29742-2

Researchers have a formula for getting in the flow (2022, April 26)
retrieved 27 April 2

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Microbiology researchers further understanding of ocean’s role in carbon cycling

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Depiction of what was studied. Credit: Oregon State University

Microbiology researchers at Oregon State University have shed new light on the mechanisms of carbon cycling in the ocean, using a novel approach to track which microbes are consuming different types of organic carbon produced by common phytoplankton species.

The research is an important step toward forecasting how much carbon will leave the ocean for the atmosphere as greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and how much will end up entombed in marine sediments, said Ryan Mueller, associate professor in OSU’s Department of Microbiology and the leader of the study.

Findings were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our research shows that different species of microbes in the ocean are very particular yet predictable in the sources they prefer to eat,” said first author Brandon Kieft, a recent Oregon State Ph.D. graduate who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia. “As continues to alter oceanic environments at a rapid pace, the availability of food sources for microbes will also change, ultimately favoring certain types over others.”

Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms at the base of the ocean’s and a key component of a critical biological carbon pump. Most float in the upper part of the ocean, where sunlight can easily reach them.

The tiny autotrophic plants—they make their own food—have a big effect on the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by sucking it up during photosynthesis. It’s a natural sink and one of the primary ways that CO2, the most abundant greenhouse gas, is scrubbed from the atmosphere; atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased 40% since the dawn of the industrial age, contributing heavily to a warming planet.

“We’re studying the consumers—the heterotrophic microbes—of the organic material made by the primary producers, the microbial phytoplankton,” Mueller said. “Both groups are microbes, the former primarily consumes organic carbon as a food source, while the latter ‘fix’ their own organic carbon. Microbes form the basis of the food web and biological carbon pump, and our work is primarily focused on exploring what the consumers are doing in this system.”

The surface ocean stores nearly as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere. As the ocean pulls in , phytoplankton use the CO2 and sunlight for photosynthesis: They convert them into sugars and other compounds the cells can use for energy, producing oxygen in the process.

This so-called fixed carbon makes up the diet of heterotrophic microbes and higher organisms of the marine food web such as fish and mammals, which ultimately convert the carbon back to atmospheric CO2 through respiration or contribute to the carbon stock at the bottom of the ocean when they die and sink.

The collective respiratory activity of the heterotrophic microbial consumers is the main way that fixed dissolved organic carbon from phytoplankton is returned to the atmosphere as CO2.

Mueller, Kieft and collaborators at the Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories and the universities of Tennessee, Washington and Oklahoma used labeling to track carbon as it made its way into the organic matter produced by the phytoplankton and, ultimately, the heterotrophic microbes that consume it.

The scientists used those isotopes to tell which organisms were eating diatoms and which were consuming cyanobacteria, two species of phytoplankton that combine to produce a majority of the ocean’s fixed carbon. The researchers could also tell when the consumption was happening—for example, at times the cells were producing substances known as lysates during their death phase or exudates during their growth phase.

“Our findings have important implications for understanding how marine and photosynthetic algae function together to impact global carbon cycling and how this oceanic food web may respond to continued environmental change,” Kieft said. “This will help us predict how much will go back into the atmosphere and how much will be buried in for centuries.”

More information:
Phytoplankton exudates and lysates support distinct microbial consortia with specialized metabolic and ecophysiological traits, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2101178118 ,

Microbiology researchers further understanding of ocean’s role in carbon cycling (2021, October 7)
retrieved 8 October 2021

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