Monday, January 4, 2010


A direct link to the above video is at

Last entry, in Time and Music, we looked at a brief video clip of the classic Canadian rock band Lighthouse performing live in an experimental setup where different members of the band were in different cities, and the "latency" or time lag introduced by the technology of the time (1996) resulted in them hearing each other as much as 200 milliseconds out of sync with each other. The solution was that they had to somehow re-calibrate their brains, so to speak, so that their impetus to play the notes was way ahead of when they actually wanted the notes to sound. Still, as Paul Hoffert - one of the founding members of Lighthouse who participated in this experiment - remarked in that same blog entry, there are musical instruments and musical situations where musicians regularly have to adjust their playing to compensate for a certain amount of delay, or to play ahead/behind the beat to create a certain feel - musicians use phrases like "playing in the pocket" or "finding the groove" to describe the satisfying feeling of playing with other musicians when it all falls into place, and years of practice create the ability for musicians to play with a seemingly effortless flow.

"Flow" is an interesting word. In my project, I often talk about how for us time seems to flow in only one direction, but that physics places no real restriction on which direction time should happen to occur. In recent entries like The Quantum Solution to Time's Arrow and The Statistical Universe, we looked at some new scientific theories that explore what it can mean if time and causality are not limited to the entropy-driven single direction that we have traditionally believed time to occupy, and my insistence that "time" is just one of the two possible directions in the fourth spatial dimension is very much a part of all this as well.

My use of the word "flow" led a friend of mind from facebook, Jacob Wennerqvist (a talented heavy metal musician from Sweden) to ask me about the word, as he was familiar with it from a different context. Here's what I wrote back to him:

Hi Jacob,

Are you familiar with "flow" in the sense that psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi uses the term? Here's an article from wikipedia:

"In an interview with Wired magazine, 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.'"

Let me pause in my letter to Jacob and expand upon this a bit. First of all, according to wikipedia, Mihaly's last name is pronounced "cheek-sent-me-high-ee". The diagram we're looking at here relates to his seminal work, 'Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience'. It shows how a high challenge level can combine with a high skill level to allow us to enter a state of "flow". To quote further from that same wikipedia article, he states that "people are most happy when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove." Now let's continue with what I had said to Jacob:

When I use the word "flow" in my writing, I'm usually using it to describe the mainstream science idea that time can flow in either direction. "Flow", in this sense, means that there are logical connections between what happens in one time-unit and the next, which means that some "next possible state" outcomes in the following time-unit are very likely, some unlikely, and some impossible to get to. That idea, physicists like Sean Carroll and many others have explained, makes just as much sense no matter what direction you are observing those slices of time - forward or backward, there is still a logical progression to the "flow".

I see that you are an excellent musician, watched a few of your clips. Using the term "flow" as it applies to time and music is very apt - whether you're writing a song or improvising a lead line, there are a great many choices for "what happens next" but the choices are not limitless - if they were then your music would become random white noise.

If you were to take a recording of your music and play it backwards, it would still have logical connections within it that make sense, and if you were to play a solo over top of that backwards recording there would be many options that make sense, that go with the musical "flow" of what's created by moving in time's opposite direction.

Does this help to illuminate what I'm thinking about?

Thanks for the question!
I've talked before about Sean Carroll's approach to the symmetric nature of time and the underlying timelessness of our universe in entries like Time in Either Direction, The Spacetime Tree, Scrambled Eggs, What's Before and After, and The Big Bang is an Illusion. Most recently, in How to Time Travel, I mentioned that Dr. Carroll has a new book coming out this month called From Eternity to Here: the Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, which I'm very much looking forward to reading.

In my book and this blog, one of the central themes has been the nature of time and how our participation in that process creates the dividing line between a sea of indeterminacy and the beautiful world we see around us. The concept of "flow" as a process that allows us with practice to do this better is an important one. It points to a real tension we feel in these modern times: how can I tell when I'm "in the zone" as opposed to "just zoning out"?

My song "Automatic" is about those moments when we stop analyzing what we're doing and just go with the flow. This song also mentions Julian Jaynes, whose challenging book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind proposed that the splitting apart of our minds into a conscious "narrator" and an underlying "just being in the moment" is a recent event, perhaps from only the last few thousand years. The fact that our narrator voice gets in the way and keeps us from doing some of our most difficult activities is also what we're talking about in this song: despite the fact that we've been taught to sometimes ridicule those moments as being a bad thing because it means our conscious minds were wandering, there is really something very useful about this state of mind. That will be just as true when a musician is trying to play 200 milliseconds ahead of the beat as it is for someone trying to hit a golf ball or even someone driving a car - removing distractions and just zeroing in on the flow helps us to do these activities better.

A direct link to the above video is at

Enjoy the journey!

Rob Bryanton

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