The Dark Side of Flow: Dark flow, Depression and Gambling to Escape

Flow is a very influential concept from positive psychology that describes a state where one becomes completely absorbed in an ongoing activity.  Time becomes distorted as one’s attention is focused on the activity to the exclusion of all else.  Slot machine players refer to a state they call “the slot machine zone” which bears many similarities to flow. They experience distortions in the passage of time, intense pleasure, and deep absorption in the game.  We have referred to this state as “Dark Flow” since becoming completely occupied by the game and forgetting everything else leads to “dark” consequences such as spending more money than intended. We propose that depressed players who experience dark flow have difficulty staying on task in everyday life, but, the reinforcing sights and sounds of slot machines rein in these otherwise wandering minds and induce these flow-like states.

In this research I will show how mindfulness problems outside of the gambling context are positively correlated with dark flow during multiline slot machine play. I will then show how dark flow is positively correlated with positive affect during play and how the combination of dark flow and depression predicted more severe gambling problems. The picture that emerges is that individuals with mindfulness problems in everyday life find their attention locked in by slot machines.  This riveted attention induces dark flow, which in turn leads to a state of positive affect. For depressed players especially, the positive affect experienced while playing slots may explains how some depressed individuals maladaptively use slots play to regulate their mood.  The movement from unhappy, wandering minds to locked in attention, flow, and positive affect may explain those who use multiline slots as a form of “escape”.

Mike J. Dixon is a full professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. He has twice served as the chair of the Department of Psychology.  In terms of his gambling research he is best known for his work on Losses Disguised as Wins in Multiline slots play, and the frustrating but motivating effects of near-misses in slots and scratch-cards.  In addition to his recent research on gambling and gaming, he has also conducted research on synaesthesia, category specific deficits in stroke and Alzheimer’s patients, and family dynamics in Schizophrenia. He has been continuously funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council since 1997 and has also received grants from the Heart and Stroke foundation of Canada, the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, and the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, and the Manitoba Gambling Research Council.

He has published over 120 articles, and his work has appeared in journals such as Nature, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology , Cortex and Addiction.  His synaesthesia research has been featured in Time Magazine and the Discovery Channel, and his work on Losses Disguised as Wins in multiline slot machines was featured on 60 Minutes, and has led to policy changes in the UK, Australia and Canada.

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