Posts Tagged ‘Flow’

Optimal Performance

March 3, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman writes that “the relationship between stress and performance has been known for a century in psychology. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.” It’s likely that Yerkes and Dodson were unaware of this relationship. They were describing the relationship between motivation and performance. The relationship is an inverted U. Performance is poor at low levels of motivation and at very high levels of motivation. It is at moderate levels where performance is best.

At this point it would be good to review a previous healthy memory blog post, titled “How Our Bodies Respond to Stress.” Two stress hormones are cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These two hormones are released by our adrenal glands during times of stress, but they serve different roles. Cortisol helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves the ability of the body and brain to use that energy. Cortisol also surpresses some biological functions that are less important during stress, such as digestion, reproduction, and growth. On the other hand, DHEA is a neurosteroid, which is a hormone that helps the brain to grow. Just as testosterone helps the body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps the brain grown stronger from stressful experiences. DHEA also counters some of the effects of cortisol. For example, DHEA speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function.
We need both these hormones. Neither is a “good” or “bad” stress hormone. But the ratio of these two hormones can influence the long-term consequences of stress, especially when stress is chronic. Higher levels of cortisol can be associated with worse outcomes, such as impaired immune function and depression. In contrast, higher levels of DHEA have been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease neurodegeneration, and other diseases we typically think of as stress-related.

The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response. A higher growth index helps people thrive under stress. It predicts academic persistence and resilience in college students, as well as higher GPAs. A higher growth index was associated with greater focus, less dissociation, superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms during and after military survival training.

It is also useful to remember the posts based on Dr. McGonigal’s book, ““The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” The key to good stress is that it is interpreted as being beneficial rather than harmful.

The goal is to be at the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson arc. This is the zone of optimal performance. Ideally one wants to experience what Mihaly Csikszenmentmihalyi terms “flow.” Flow represents a peak of self-regulation, the maximal harnessing of emotions in the service of performance or learning. During flow we channel positive emotions in an energized pursuit of the task at hand. Our focus is undistracted, and we feel a spontaneous joy, even rapture.

The flow concept was developed from research where people were asked to describe a time they outdid themselves and achieved their personal best. People described moments from a wide range of domains of expertise, from basketball and ballet to chess and brain surgery. No matter what the activity, the underlying state they described was one and the same.

Goleman continues, “the chief characteristics of flow include fast unbreakable concentration: a nimble flexibility in responding to changing challenges; executing at the top of your skill level; and taking pleasure in what you’re doing— joy. That last hallmark strongly suggests that if brain scans were done of people while in flow we might expect to see notable left prefrontal activation; if brain chemistry were assayed, we would likely find higher levels of mood and performance enhancing compounds like dopamine.

This optimal performance zone has been called a state of neural harmony where the disparate areas of the brain are in synch, working together. This is also seen as a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. Getting into flow lets you use whatever talent you may have at peak levels.”

At this point HM needs to intercede and provide a reality check. Although flow is a desired state, it is rarely reached. Consider that people who have mastered a domain of expertise and who operate at the top of their game typically have practiced a minimum of 10,000 hours and are often world class in their performance. Tellingly, when such experts are engaged in their skill, whatever it may be, their overall levels of brain arousal tend to become lower, suggesting that for them this particularly activity has become relatively effortless, even at its peak.

We have ample opportunity to observe these experts at athletic events. There might be rare occasions where an individual might appear to be in flow, but they are indeed rare. Professional athletes repeatedly fail and make errors. HM does not play golf and has difficulty understanding why others play golf. He does enjoy watching professionals play golf. But it seems like they are constantly making errors and ending up in undesirable areas. If HM could make the money successful professional golfers make, he would play golf. But as a normal hacker, he cannot understand where the pleasure is in the game.

There are times that one sees a skier skiing down the slopes in what appears to be a state of flow. But then he falls and the medics show up to take him off the course.

Goleman does discuss the benefits of regularly practicing methods that enhance concentration and relax us physiologically. There are voluminous healthymemory blog posts on the relaxation response, meditation, and mindfulness techniques. Use the search block on the healthy memory blog to find this posts.

He gets back on track by writing, “Anything that truly relaxes you helps, like playing with kids or taking the dog for a walk, or whatever is going to get you in a relaxed state. The more you can break the cycle of the right prefrontal capture by the amygdala, the more you’ll be to activate the beneficial circuitry of the left prefrontal cortex.


The Master Aptitude

March 14, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” When emotions overwhelm concentration working memory is swamped. Working memory is where all information relevant to the task at hand is held. This information can be as mundane as the digits that comprise a telephone number, or as complicated as the intricate plot lines a novelist is trying to weave together. Working memory is the executive function that makes possible all other intellectual efforts, from speaking a sentence to tackling difficult logical propositions. The prefrontal cortex executes working memory and that is where feeling and emotion meet. When the limbic circuitry that converges on the prefrontal cortex is in emotional distress, one casualty is the effectiveness of working memory. We can’t think straight.

Here the role of positive motivation needs to be considered. The marshaling of feelings like enthusiasm and confidence enhance achievement. Studies of Olympic athletes, world-class musicians, and chess grand masters find their unifying trait is the ability to motivate themselves to pursue relentless training routines.

The added payoff for life success from motivation, apart from other innate abilities, is seen in the remarkable performance of Asian students in American schools and professions. A review of the evidence suggests that Asian-American children may have an average IQ Advantage over whites of just two or three points. Yet on the basis of the professions, such as law and medicine, where many Asian-Americans end up, as a group they behave as though their IQ were much higher—the equivalent of an IQ of 110 Japanese-Americans and of 120 for Chinese-Americans. It seems that for the earliest years of school, Asian children work harder than whites. Sanford Dorenbusch, a Stanford sociologist who studies more than ten thousand high school students, found that Asian-Americans spend 40% more time doing homework than did other students. Dorenbusch writes, “While most American parents are willing to accept a child’s weak areas and emphasize his strengths, for Asians, the attitude is that if you’re not doing well, the answer is to study later at night, and if you still don’t do well, to get up and study earlier in the morning.”

Goleman concludes, “To the way that our emotions get in the way of or enhance our ability to think and plan, to pursue training for a distant goal, to solve problems and the like, they define the limits of our capacity to use our innate mental abilities, and so determine what we do in life. And to the degree to which we are motivated by feelings of enthusiasm and pleasure in what we do—or even by an optimal degree of anxiety—they propel us to accomplishment. It is in this sense that emotional intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.

Although it is likely that most healthy memory blog readers are aware of the Marshmallow Test, its implications are important enough for it to be mentioned now. The first studies were done by psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s at a preschool on the Stanford University campus. The test involve placing a marshmallow before a four year old. The child was told that the researcher was going to leave for 15 to 20 minutes, but if they child could save the marshmallow until he retired, she would be rewarded with another marshmallow. Some children managed to resist and got the second marshmallow reward, and some didn’t. The ramifications of this study did not become clear until 12 to 14 years later. Those who had resisted temptation at 4 were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties. The children who had grabbed the marshmallow were just the opposite.

The children who were able to delay gratification were also much better students. But, perhaps what was most astonishing were SAT scores. The third of the children who at four grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and a quantitative scorer of 528. The third who waited the longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively—a 210 difference in total score.

Foul moods foul thinking. Being anxious about a test degrades both study and performance on the test. People who are adept at harnessing their emotions use anticipatory anxiety about an upcoming test to motivate themselves to prepare well for it, thereby doing well.

A mildly elated state called hypomania seems optimal for writers and others in creative callings that demand fluidity and imaginative diversity of thought. Here it is important to remember the inverted U shape relationship between motivation and performance. One wants to get to the peak of the inverted U. If euphoria gets out of control to become outright mania (not hypomania) as in the mood swings of manic-depressives, the agitation undermines the ability to think cohesively.

Good moods enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity. One was to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise—a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relationships and foreseeing the consequences of a given decision.

A great motivator is optimism. Optimism means having a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life, despite setbacks and frustrations. Seligman defines optimism in terms of how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. People who are optimistic see a failure as due to something than can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change.

Optimism is central to growth mindsets, which are much advocated in this blog. Enter “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog for relevant posts.

Goleman terms Flow as the neurobiology of excellence. Flow is the state defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi known to athletes as the zone where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappearing into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Goleman writes “flow represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing emotions in the service of performance and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. Yet flow (or a milder micro flow) is an experience almost everyone enters from time to time, particularly when performing at their peak or stretching beyond their former limits. It is perhaps best captured by ecstatic lovemaking, the merging of two into fluidly harmonious state.”

Goleman writes that “there are several ways to enter flow. One is to intentionally focus a sharp attention on the task at hand; a highly concentrated state is the essence of flow. There seems to be a feedback loop at the gateway to this zone: it can require considerable effort to get calm and focused enough to begin the task—this first step takes some discipline. But once focus starts to lock in, it takes on a force of its own, both offering relief from emotional turbulence and making the task effortless.”

Entry to this zone can also occur when people find a task they are skilled at, and engage in it at a level than slightly taxes their ability. Csikszentmihali told Goleman, “People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and when they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate cone between boredom and anxiety.”

Flow is a desirable state to achieve. However, the master aptitude is optimism. With optimism one proceeds to develop growth mindsets. This leads to successful lives and healthy memories.

Creative Time

December 27, 2014

Creative Time is another section in the chapter Organizing Our Time in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. The section begins with a discussion of creativity and insight. We’ll skip this as many posts were written about insight fairly recently. Then he moves on to the topic of flow. Although flow has been discussed previously in this blog, it is an important enough topic and Levitin does provide some new information. Flow refers to the experience of getting wonderfully, blissfully lost in an activity losing all track of time, of ourselves, our problems. Flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing as formulated by Dr.Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book The Distraction Addiction (you can use the search box to find these posts). The phenomena of flow were identified and discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-high, CHEECH-sent-mee-high). It feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. Flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. Two key regions deactivate during flow: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the brain’s fear center, the amygdala.

Flow can occur during either the planning or he execution phase of an activity, but it is most often associated with the execution of a complex task, such as playing a solo on a musical instrument, writing an essay or shooting baskets. A lack of distractability characterizes flow. A second characteristic of flow is that we monitor our performance without the kinds of self-defeating negative judgments that often accompany creative work. When we’re not in flow, a nagging voice inside our head often says, “It’s not good enough.” In flow, a reassuring voice says, “we can fix that.”

Flow is a Goldilocks experience. The task cannot be too easy or too difficult, it has to be at just the right level. It takes less energy to be in flow than to be distracted. This is why flow states are characterized by great productivity and efficiency.

As mentioned earlier, flow is also in a chemically different state, although the particular neurochemical soup has yet to be identified. There needs to be a balance of dopamine and noradrenaline, particularly as they are modulated in a brain region known as the striatum, the locus of the attentional switch, serotonin, for freedom to access stream-of-consciousness associations, and adrenaline, to stay focused and energized. GABA neurons that normally function to inhibit actions and help us exercise self-control need to reduce their activity so that we are not overly critical of ourselves, and so that we can be less inhibited in the generation of ideas.

Flow is not always good. If it becomes an addiction, it can be disruptive. And it can be socially disruptive if flow-ers withdraw from others.

Levitin goes on to describe how creative individuals and groups structure their environments and lives to enhance flow.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Using or Abstaining from Technologies in Ways That are Restorative

October 20, 2013

The eighth principle of contemplative computing1 is using or abstaining from technologies in ways that are restorative. With the possible exception of flow, using technologies requires mental effort. Even in the case of flow, eventually we all tire. In other words, our conscious mental resources deplete and need time to be restored.

So we need to know how to restore our mind’s ability to focus. We can arrange our environments to make it easier to concentrate for longer periods. It is also important to find activities that offer a respite, but not a complete break from steady concentration. Things that offer a sense of being away with a mix of fascination and boundlessness can help our minds recharge. Complete breaks are also essential. Take time off to meditate. A good walk can help the mind recharge. Then, too, it is also necessary to know when it’s time to quit for the day (or night). Be assured that even when we give our conscious minds a break, our subconscious minds keep working. It is possible that our conscious minds can get caught in a rut thinking about the same things, and a complete break can facilitate our subconscious minds breaking through with the answer.

So, there we have it. The eight principles of contemplative computing: be human, be calm, be mindful, make conscious choices, extend our abilities, seek flow, engage with the world, and use or abstain from technologies in ways that are restorative.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction.

Seek Flow

October 13, 2013

Seeking flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing.1 Flow is a state identified by Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high’-ee).2 It has the following components. “Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.”3 He says that you can reach flow doing almost anything. He gives an example of how lox cutters achieve flow.

Situations in which there are challenges, clear rules, and immediate feedback are likely to achieve flow. Usually video games are good for achieving flow, and they have been found beneficial in helping older people keep mentally sharp. Unfortunately, once you become especially good at something it can become boring. That is why many games have different difficulty levels. Once you have become bored with one level and are no longer achieving, you can advance to the next level and improve to the point where you again achieve flow.

Flow can be experienced in many activities, and some require considerable time before you start to achieve flow. I remember studying German in college. The first course was slow going. In fact, I received my first and only “D” in introductory German . I then learned that I needed to spend time drilling in the language laboratory until things started flowing. As I studied further, I could read German without consulting the dictionary so frequently. And got to the point where I could understand lectures when they were given in German.

Seeking flow can be regarded as an extension of the preceding principle, extend your abilities. Play video games and achieve flow. But don’t stop there. Consider athletic, and especially mental, activities were flow can be achieved. Mnemonic techniques can be developed to the point where flow is achieved in memorization.

The first five principles of contemplative computing have been discussed in the immediately preceding posts. The final two principles will be discussed in the subsequent posts.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

2 (2008) Csikszentmihalyi, E. The Psychology of Optimal Experience

3 (2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.