31.01.2023 - Can animals also get into "flow"?
The good feeling when we are completely absorbed in a task and forget everything around us is called flow. BOKU researcher Sara Hintze and a colleague have now published a conceptual study in the scientific journal "Biological Reviews" that addresses the question of whether animals can also experience this state in which everything feels coherent?
We all know them: Moments when we are so absorbed in an activity that we forget everything around us. We concentrate completely on our task, become one with it, forget worries and fears. In short, everything feels coherent. This state is colloquially called "flow". Many competitive athletes experience it, for example when dancing, surfing or climbing, and even surgeons know the good feeling when an operation challenges them and yet "everything goes well".
But even everyday activities such as solving maths problems or puzzles can trigger flow. This always happens when the difficulty of the task to be solved exactly matches our abilities: If the task is too easy, we get bored; if it is too difficult, we get frustrated. But if we are challenged and succeed in mastering the task step by step, then we experience flow. Flow is a good experience, something that makes us feel good. Psychology knows this too, and so there are courses and coaching sessions to help us experience more flow.
Do pigs, cows and sheep also experience flow?
It is not yet known whether animals also experience flow. "Flow in the animal kingdom has not received any attention so far," says Sara Hintze from the Institute of Farm Animal Science at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. She and her colleague Jason Yee have shed light on flow in animals for the first time in a conceptual study recently published in the journal Biological Reviews. "We were both captivated by the idea that animals can also experience flow," says Hintze. "If we give animals the opportunity to experience flow, can we improve the quality of life of farm animals like pigs, cattle or chickens?" That would be an important step towards greater animal welfare and an improved quality of life for animals in human care.
If only they could speak
But as always when it comes to the emotional lives of animals, we face the challenge of lacking language as a means of communication. While research on flow in humans is almost entirely based on interviews, we can't simply ask animals if and when they experience flow and how it feels when they do. "In our work, we collected all the flow characteristics known from humans and went through them one by one: Which of the characteristics could be used to trigger and demonstrate flow in animals, and how?"
Does time fly?
Hintze and Yee propose two flow characteristics as an approach for flow research in animals. When we experience flow, we focus on our task in such a way that we are not distracted by anything. It is quite easy to find out how much animals are distracted by a task set for them: Do they respond to small distractions, like a noise, to stronger ones, like their favourite food, or possibly not at all because they are so engrossed in their task?
Besides the reduced likelihood of being distracted, we also know that time flies when we are in the flow. Hintze has already been able to show that the time perception of animals can be studied in pigs. For this purpose, the pigs learn to go to the right of two flaps when a short tone is played in order to receive a food reward there. If, on the other hand, a long tone is played, the reward is only given behind the left flap. Once the animals have learned this, a medium-length tone is played. Which flap will the pig go to? "If a pig has experienced flow, it should go to the right flap, because the time will have flown by and it will consider the time of the sound to be rather short. If, on the other hand, the pig has not experienced flow before, it should rate the duration of the sound as rather long and go to the left accordingly."
Flow as part of a good life - also for animals
The recently published theoretical study is an important first step for practical research on flow in animals. With the increasing demands of our society for better husbandry conditions in which animals not only do not suffer but also have a good life, the question arises as to what actually constitutes a good life. Research into flow in animals could make an important contribution to this.
Link to the study:
Dr. Sara Hintze
University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna
Institute for Farm Animal Science