On Verbal versus Preverbal Thinking

(Epistemic status:  Probably noncontroversial, anecdotal, mental processes)

There’s a thing I’ve noticed when I feel like I’m in a state of “flow” that is best defined by describing my thought processes when I am not in “flow”.  If you hadn’t guessed, I am a very, very verbal thinker.  Most things I approach is analyzed on a conscious, verbal level.  Sometimes I might make a quick decision, but I analyze it in a verbal fashion shortly after.  When I am in “flow”, the words just do not happen.

So, the first time I really started realizing my verbal processing wasn’t actually being engaged when I was in “flow” was when I was playing fighting games.  I started to feel this lightness, this energy, this focus, and a spiraling inward on a single concept of just…being in the game.  I wasn’t trying to strategize or even be tactical.  I just felt the entire fighting space, knew where I needed to be and was making decisions before I could even think about them, in complex enough patterns that I wasn’t completely predictable.  This seems to be accompanied by a sort of presence in my playstyle that causes the other player to make more and more mistakes.  Breaking my fighting game flow state isn’t too hard; once the other person breaks the sense that they are in the losing role and that I’m moving too fast for them (sometimes even by getting a lucky hit in and then pressing the advantage) I start going back to higher levels of slow, verbal thinking which just can’t keep up.

After this observation, I realized I have a flow state in other situations, particularly social situations.  There’s a point where I’m not thinking about how to guide the conversation and the back and forth is preverbal and natural; while I am of course using words to converse, I’m not on the high, strategic level where I’m trying to singlehandedly maintain the conversation.  When I reach conversational flow, it tends to feel really good for both participants (assuming I am not misreading my conversation partners, of course).  Flow also can occur when I’m writing essays.  The first couple paragraphs usually are a bit forced but it gets me to the state where I’m just seeing the sentences fluidly and typing what comes to mind, once I’m in the mode of the subject I am typing about.
My intuition on how this all works is that preverbal thinking is accessing a spatial representation of concept/habit/skill.  This has several advantages:

1) Words work in 2 dimensional space even mentally; space is 3 dimensional, which means you can see more of it at once, in a metaphorical sense.
2) Working in 3 dimensional space means that connections are easier to form; you don’t have to “read” back to previous concepts, they’re just there even if they were thought of further back
3) Seeing is faster than listening/reading.  You’re taking away a layer of filtering to access a much faster level of thought.
4) Space allows for much more efficient chunking of concepts, you can collapse a paragraph into an object and represent several of those at once, up to working memory.

The issue with this is that you have to have sufficient facility with a concept or skill to actually accomplish anything with preverbal chunking.  The verbal level allows you to break down the steps of what you are doing, go over your process with a fine comb, and improve it.  To get back to the preverbal level, you have to repeat a working verbal process over and over to start compressing mentally what you are doing.  A plausible (and probably already modelled) conception of skill and habit acquisition is that you start preverbal, doing a thing badly because you don’t even have the words; going verbal to debug your process; staying verbal to reinforce your process; shifting back preverbal to conserve mental processing and access more of the skill at once.  I also believe that skills don’t just do this once, but repetitively; you start bad, you gain proficiency, you start doing it naturally, you plateau because you’re running preverbally and are starting to notice more improvements, you bring it back verbal, you debug, you reinforce, then you take it back to preverbal.  This feels a lot like how I’ve learned to play fighting games on a slightly higher than basic level.

I don’t think this explanation really covers why a flow state is so powerful and effective.  It makes sense in terms of learning theory but flow also feels really really good.  I suspect there is some reward process involved here that favors increasing and acquiring skills, particularly skills you already have an aptitude for.  To get into evo-psych hell, my next question would be whether flow is a universal feeling, or a feeling some people have that others don’t; the follow up to that would be how “skillful” people with flow feel compared to people without.  Objective data on this would be even cooler (if anyone has this, please reblog and link because I love studies).  

The other thing that is more interesting and important to explore is how to induce a state of flow in more situations and whether feeling good about a task makes you better at it.  On the one hand, I feel like being in a state of flow most of my life would be great and I’d feel and possibly be really successful.  On the other hand, if flow state is largely just being really, really good at habit, then this would directly go against my values of neophilia.  I think a good way to explore this more would be using the Save State Hypnosis (not yet posted, but effectively binding memories of experience and emotion to smell, touch, and trigger word) to capture flow (which may be intrinsically impossible because doing the Save State ritual may break flow), and then invoke the Save State when I am approaching a new task and see if acquisition increases or if I start at a higher level, while noting if seemingly related skill chunks are being drawn in because my mind feels like it should be in flow or if I gain a higher intuitive understanding by forcing it.  I will link the report here after I do it.

Discussion:  Do you have a state of flow?  How does it feel?  When does it trigger?  Does it actually make you better at things or just make you feel like you’re better at things?

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