This week’s blog post is by Dr Nick Holton, Co-Director of Human Flourishing at the Shipley School and Peak Performance Coach for the Flow Research Collective. Nick is an international speaker, consultant and coach and host of Take a Seat, a podcast about flourishing. He works with professional and collegiate athletes, schools, C-suite executives and entrepreneurs and has authored op-eds and book chapters for various publishers, most recently for Fast Company.
In recent years, educators and peak performers have started to pay more and more attention to the concept of flow. Flow is an altered state of consciousness, one in which we feel and perform at our best. It was first conceptualised by Mihayli Czikszentmihalyi. He interviewed various types of people, mostly creatives, about experiences in their lives when they both felt and performed their best. Many of these individuals described experiences in which time seemed to stop, their sense of self disappeared, and their creative or productive output simply ‘flowed’ out of them.
Years later, it became one of the key components of Martin Seligman’s scientific model for human flourishing. You likely know someone who goes through life without experiencing much pleasantness, enjoys solitude more than socialising and isn’t traditionally ‘healthy’, but who nonetheless is incredibly happy and satisfied because they’ve found one or two things that provide them with the deeply engaging and immersive experience of flow. It creates an absurdly wonderful cocktail in the brain that is made up of all sorts of ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals, like dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide and serotonin.
This neurochemical cocktail doesn’t just make us feel better, though. It also helps us perform better. In fact, it’s the neurobiological state of peak performance. The experience of flow can lead to 500% more productivity and creativity and allow us to learn between 200-500% faster. For many, flow is not just a game-changer, it is the game. Something to be pursued and experienced as frequently as possible.
Unfortunately, flow is often absent from classroom settings and learning environments in general. How might educators go about changing that and leveraging the incredible neurobiology of the flow state? What follows are a few evidence-based recommendations.
Getting into flow
Years of wonderful science from various fields has demonstrated that we can cultivate more consistently ‘flowy’ lives. A few of the high-leverage approaches to gaining more flow are:
1. Integrating more flow ‘triggers’ into tasks and activities
Flow ‘triggers’ are components of experiences that drive dopamine and/or norepinephrine through the brain, both of which can facilitate focus.
2. Reducing and controlling distractions
Flow follows deep focus. If we cannot sustain focus, we cannot get into flow. So, anything that potentially pulls our focus – notifications, emails, interruptions – blocks flow.
3. Reducing cognitive load
When we get into flow, we experience a neurological shift known as transient-hypo frontality or deregulation of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the shift that often results in perceived dilation of time, loss of sense of self and other elements of altered states. Most importantly, this also suggests that states like the flow state occur, in part, as a result of the brain diverting its resources to other networks. Thus, potentially bridging a connection between cognitive load and an absence of flow.
If cognitive load is high, we may not have enough cognitive resources to divert to the networks necessary for flow. We know, for instance, that in many cases, when there’s a reduction of cognitive load, processes become possible which otherwise would have remained impossible. We also know that when cognitive load is reduced, processes that are already possible, but still require high mental effort, become possible with less effort. These are two key features of flow.
Directing focus through facilitators of flow
To better understand how we might leverage the flow state in classrooms and learning situations more generally, we need to dig into flow triggers. Each of them drives focus by causing the brain to secrete dopamine or norepinephrine. To date, researchers and organisations like the Flow Research Collective have identified a dozen individual flow triggers. We also have a strong understanding of another ten group flow triggers, thanks to the work of Keith Sawyer in his 2008 book, Group Genius. I’ll focus on the individual triggers. No doubt, seasoned educators will recognise quite a few of them.
- Curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy and mastery are all intrinsic motivators and drivers of attention. Many will recognize the three components of Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (i.e. autonomy, mastery and purpose). We increase our chances of getting into flow when we can pursue what we’re curious about, identify connections between those streams of interest (passion), connect those interests to a greater purpose and have the autonomy (i.e. freedom and choice) to pursue that passion and purpose, and master competencies in service of that purpose.
- Complete concentration. Once again, flow follows deep focus. We not only need to direct our focus in a specific direction, we need to also control the extent to which distractions might pull our attention in other directions.
- Novelty. Another evolutionary mechanism: early humans needed to notice changes to their environment and assess whether those changes presented a threat or not. Dopamine helps to incentivise us to seek out and assess that new entry into our environment. This can be problematic (e.g. notifications on our phones or email), but it’s also a useful tool in directing our attention.
- Risk, unpredictability and complexity. It’s important to note that these three triggers require a sweet spot. When something of importance or perceived importance is at risk, we have to pay attention to it. Likewise, when we are not sure of the outcome of something important to us, the brain’s executive attention network will direct focus in anticipation of the coming result. Certain levels of complexity can do the same. However, if we tip the scales of these triggers too far and engage with experiences that are too risky, unpredictable or complex, they can actually raise anxiety too high and subsequently block out flow and learning in general.
- Deep embodiment. We often think of the brain as sending signals to and controlling every other part of the body. While there’s some truth to that, the relationship between the body and brain is not one-directional. In fact, the brain is actually isolated from the external world by our skulls, which means it often has to receive information from other sources (i.e. our senses) before it can do some of its processing. So, physical experiences can trigger our attention and facilitate flow.
- Challenge/skills ratio. Perhaps the most well-known to most educators, this is often referred to as the ‘zone of proximal development’. In my work with both students and high-performing clients this tends to be the most common primary flow trigger. The balance is relatively simple. Too much challenge and, like with risk, complexity and unpredictability, we become too anxious and block out flow. The same goes for experiencing too much risk, complexity and unpredictability. Too little challenge, and we don’t engage responses like stress and interest that drive our attention. In other words, we become bored.
- Feedback. Dialling in the challenge/skills ratio requires feedback. The more immediate, the better. Feedback serves as a compass as we move through our experiences of flow.
- Clarity. On the other end of ambiguity is clarity, specifically in the form of clear goals. In flow, our subconscious does a lot of the heavy-lifting and our pre-frontal cortex does less. To reach this point, it’s often necessary to make sure we don’t have to think about what we’re doing and, instead, can simply go about doing it. This requires having clarity about our objectives. It also facilitates a decrease in cognitive load, another facilitator of flow.
- Pattern recognition (or creativity). Like with many of the triggers you’ve seen here, pattern recognition is an evolutionary tool. The ability to recognize patterns helped early humans make sense of the world and survive. This is why we secrete feel good chemicals like dopamine when we’re able to see patterns or be creative (e.g. sudoku or noticing overlaps between courses). It feels good because it is good.
Unfortunately, not all the triggers fit so neatly into the current systems of education used in much of the modern world, or into common classroom practices and pedagogy. Therein lies the rub. If we want to help young people to feel their best, build their confidence, reach their potential and learn to crush it while achieving fulfilment, we need to be willing to adjust education to accommodate what is psychologically, neurologically and biologically necessary for flow. In other words, if want the best for the next generation – the future of this world – we need to enable flow more in education.
While we might be a long way off that vision, it’s absolutely worthwhile to start taking the steps towards it. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine a system filled with experiences for learners in which they learn at a rate 500% higher than today. Not only that, but it makes them feel great and they love it.
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