NPR Story
7:36 am
Fri August 22, 2014

Gary Borders: Flow theory is a better label than space cadet

I come from a family of daydreaming drivers, which often leads to missed turns and abashed backtracking.

Once while heading back from New Orleans with a carload of teenagers I forgot to get off I-10 in Beaumont to head north into the Piney Woods. Next thing I knew the sign said “San Antonio, 175 miles” and Houston was in my rearview mirror. My passengers were not pleased.

When we were tykes, my dad didn’t see a sign that said ‘Road Closed.’ He headed for miles down a new hunk of highway that abruptly ended in an expanse of dirt. We boys sat in the backseat trying to muffle our giggles while my mom gave him an earful. This was not an isolated incident. If sent to the store to buy bread, often as not he would drive right by the parking lot, lost in thought, until one of us kids would remind him of the mission at hand.

My middle brother Scott gets lost so easily that he finally bought a GPS that serves as his brain while driving. He uses the GPS not only to avoid making a wrong turn, but so he can remember where it is he’s headed in the first place.  Together, we are a disaster wandering around town, even with a GPS.

I can’t count the times I’ve pulled into a big-box parking lot, gone inside and returned with no clue where I had parked. Once I lost my car in a Houston airport parking garage for two hours. So I’ve learned to compensate, by always parking in the same area, writing down my lot number at the airport, and always driving vehicles with alarm key fobs I can push and follow the honking.

True story: Having learned my lesson once at the Houston airport, I carefully wrote down where my car was located in a vast outdoor parking lot. I went to get the car, which was nowhere to be found.

It was July. Houston in July is unpleasant on the best of days. After searching for a while, I walked over to the lot attendant, insisting that I knew where my car was parked, and it wasn’t there.

The attendant laughed and said, “Oh, honey, we were resurfacing the parking lot, so we moved a bunch of cars. It’s way over there.”  Sure enough, 100 yards away in a corner sat my car.

I’ve driven the road from Longview to Mount Pleasant so often lately that I’ll look up and have no idea where I am along the route, or what town I last passed through. This can be disconcerting. Am I losing my memory? Have I been paying attention to the road while so deep in thought that I can’t even remember if I’ve sped through Pittsburg yet?

Then a friend told me about flow theory. The clouds lifted, and my worries vanished. Thanks to flow theory’s chief protagonist, whose name I can’t pronounce, I am not simply daydreaming. I am in the flow.

The theory attempts to explain how some of us can become so fully immersed in what we’re doing, or thinking, that we have this feeling of being carried along by the activity. One loses a sense of time, even perhaps a sense of self-consciousness.

So when I have driven 30 miles with no memory of the route I’ve covered, it’s because I am so deeply in thought, so much in the zone, that the mundane outside world no longer has relevance.

Flow theory is a ready-made explanation for how I missed a cutoff recently while going to Tyler

and ended up wandering down a country road for miles.  It beats having to admit being a do-do brain.


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