After about ten minutes of thought, I began to lose myself in the variations. It is a strange feeling. First you are a person looking at a chessboard. You calculate the various alternatives, the mind gaining speed as it pores through the complexities, until consciousness of one’s separation from the position ebbs away and what remains is the sensation of being inside the energetic chess flow. Then the mind moves with the speed of an electrical current, complex problems are breezed through with an intuitive clarity, you get deeper and deeper into the soul of the chess position, time falls away, the concept of ‘I’ is gone, all that exists is blissful engagement, pure presence, absolute flow.
Josh Waitzkin – The Art of Learning
The following is the third post in a four-part exploration series on the known stages of Flow as defined by the Flow Genome Project, an organisation dedicated to furthering the research on optimal performance and human potential. This builds on the extensive research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
So we travelled through the struggle phase, mindful not to attach to it, priming ourselves for flow. The release provides a break after the struggle and we enter the release phase, by letting go and getting moving. Flow is next up. Flow as defined by Steven Kotler, “is the optimal state of consciousness, a state where we perform our best and feel our best”. Abraham Maslow called this state the ‘peak experience’.
What is flow?
Have you ever been ‘in the zone’ when completing an activity? It might have on the sporting field, on stage, in a conversation or working with a group. The feeling where you are so engulfed in an activity that you lose track of time, of self-awareness. The task which was once difficult is now easy and you see the richness in the details. This optimal state is called being in FLOW and in this state, there is accelerated learning, increased focus and higher performance. It is a state that athletes, musicians and performers yearn for. Growing up playing basketball and music, I remember these states fondly. Being on fire in basketball is a flow state. It feels like everyone else is moving at half speed and you can’t make a wrong decision. You see details where normally you wouldn’t, you can see decisions ahead of time and it is effortless. In music, it feels like you become one with the group. A collective playing as one instead of individual members playing separately. For most of us, conversation is where we find flow. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi found that conversation was the most common place people achieved flow period.
Below are the ten core components of flow that Csikszentmihalyi listed in his seminal book, Flow.
1. Clear goals
2. High concentration
3. Loss of self-consciousness
4. Loss of time awareness
5. Direct & immediate feedback
6. Control over the situation
7. The activity is intrinsically rewarding
8. A lack of awareness of bodily needs
9. Balance between skill level and challenge
10. Completely absorbed in the activity
Clear goals, balance between skill level and challenge and direct and immediate feedback are required for flow but don’t describe what happens when in flow. They are the required conditions for flow.
How hard should the challenge be?
The balance between skill level and challenge has been roughly calculated to be about 4% and Csikszentmihalyi’s famous flow graph (see below) is based on the Yerkes–Dodson law, which states that optimal performance is achieved when we achieve optimal arousal. This means that the challenge of the activity is just out of reach of our current skill level. Achievable but challenging.
If we use strength training as an example, the weight should provide enough resistance that you fatigue to failure after 4-6 repetitions. If the weight is too heavy, you may not be able to complete any reps or may use poor technique. If it is too light, the workout is too easy and the possibility of growth is greatly diminished.
In the book, Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal focus on four signature characteristics. Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness and Richness or STER for short.
Selflessness refers to a reduction in the awareness of self. This is due to Transient Hypo-frontality. This basically means that there is temporarily less going on in the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for your inner critic. You shut off the voice inside your head temporarily and this helps to shed any preconceived ideas about who you believe you are and helps bring new perspective.
Timelessness refers to the feeling of time being distorted. In flow, minutes can feel like hours and hours like minutes. You are as present as you can be. Present in an ‘elongated present’ or the ‘deep now’ as Wheal and Kotler refer to it. This is due to the impact of transient hypo-frontality.
Effortlessness refers to the intrinsic motivation one feels when in flow. Due to the release of the some of the most pleasurable chemicals the brain can release, flow is a highly motivating state. It is an enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding activity that leaves you wanting more.
Richness refers to the heightened capacity during flow to focus, recognise patterns and to think laterally. During a flow state, our ability to make new connections is greatly increased. Our capacity to create and come up with new ideas and insights is tremendously increased.
As educators, we are in the beautiful profession of building human capacity. Flow is the state where we are working at our optimal. Helping learners to achieve flow would assist them to push through perceived barriers and help accelerate learning and performance. It moves learners passed perceived ceilings by taking them out of their head and into the present. It allows learners to embrace struggle as a key part of the development process. In conversation, it can lead to new and exciting pathways, especially when combined with diverse group structures, true listening and divergent thinking. The intrinsic motivation of flow helps keep us grounded in the present and happy as we are.
Have you any experience with flow in the classroom? If so, I would love to hear about it.