Hacking Flow

In sports, it’s called being in the zone.

I’m talking about those moments when self vanishes, time seems to slow down, and you are operating with maximum confidence. A sense of calm pervades, even though you might be surrounded by a frenzy of activity. Your focus intensifies and your actions and decisions seem to meld.

This is the psychological state known as flow, researched and pushed into the spotlight by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You might know what flow looks like from the outside if you’ve ever experienced a great jazz player riffing, or a skilled comedian doing improvisation.

And you probably know how flows feels if you meditate. If you’re in sales, it’s those times when you and your customer seem to be synced up in perfect harmony. A writer experiencing flow has the sense that the words on the page are being dictated by some outside source. When you and your best friend are so deeply engaged in conversation that an hour feels like minutes, it’s likely you’ve put each other into a flow state.

Runners, sky divers, surfers, and students engaged in deep academic pursuit are all secret or not-so-secret flow junkies.

Flow is big business. It’s fair to say that professional sports is really a giant flow industry produced for our viewing pleasure. It gives meaning to our lives, separating out the high points of experience from the everyday mundane.

So is there a way to hack flow, to trigger a flow experience? In Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he suggests the following strategy:

1. Find something you’re passionate about and establish a clear goal for improvement.

2. Give yourself a hunk of unbroken time for maximum concentration and focus.

3. Find mentors and coaches: expert input is a key for good progress.

4. Push yourself to the edges of your abilities.

Push yourself, but don’t shove yourself. Kotler reports that a quest for a 4% improvement in any skill, compounded over time, will achieve incredible results.  It’s this kind of incremental growth that is an essential building block of progress. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is often self-defeating.

Flow is an ephemeral thing: easy to recognize, hard to pin down. In any given moment, there’s no surefire recipe for getting there. But by following Kotler’s steps, you can at least point yourself in the right direction. With a little practice, you could find yourself with a passport to the zone.

Why Your Mindset Might Be Throwing You Curveballs

Are you wired for success? And by “success”, I’m not necessarily talking about monetary reward.

In her paper “The Mindset of a Champion”, psychology professor Carol Dweck discusses the almost-professional baseball career of Billy Beane.

You might remember Billy Beane from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Beane was the famous Oakland A’s general manager who enjoyed numerous successful seasons by combining competent scouting with a wonkish handle on baseball statistics.

Beane as a player is another story.  In high school, he was a natural athlete who enjoyed interest from professional teams in baseball, basketball and football. He was considered to be the next big thing, and yet his chosen career in baseball came up short. After stints with several different teams, he eventually washed out of the major leagues.

Was Billy wired for success as a big league player? Carol Dweck doesn’t think so. Dweck’s research focuses on the concept of mindset. The idea is that people’s brains are basically wired up through environmental interaction towards one of two mindsets.

To fixed mindset people, your abilities—or lack of abilities—are fixed traits, like your height or your deadly soy allergy. “In this view,” Dweck writes, “talents are gifts—you either have them or you don’t.” The fixed mindset sees setbacks as powerfully discouraging, since any bump along the way could be a hint you were never blessed with true talent.

What’s the other option? The growth mindset, which holds that people can cultivate and improve their abilities through hard work and learning. To those with a growth mindset, drawbacks and extra practice opportunities are simply part of the game. While the fixed mindset camp sinks their time into proving themselves, the growth mindset followers focus on improving themselves.

According to Dweck, growth mindset people tend to be more successful in a wide variety of endeavors because they demonstrate more grit in the face of adversity, and because sustained incremental improvement tends to pay off over time.

You may be like Billy Beane, born with exceptional talent, but like the tortoise and the hare parable, it’s the willingness to hang in there and keep plodding along on the road of self-improvement that eventually brings the win.

Unfortunately, Billy Beane’s natural talent combined with a history of being rewarded for skill over work ethic probably led him towards a fixed mindset. The reasoning goes something like this: superstars don’t and shouldn’t need to practice all that much. That’s why they’re a cut above, that’s what defines them as superstars.

The problem with this approach is that when adversity shows up, the ‘superstar’ has developed absolutely no mechanism for overcoming it. The need for additional help or practice is seen  as only highlighting one’s personal flaws.

The good news? Since mindset is just that, a state of mind, and since the plasticity of the brain means neural rewiring is an ongoing opportunity; Beane was ultimately able to pick up more of a growth mindset. Dweck believes this contributed to Beane’s eventual success as a GM with the A’s.

Interested in success? What mindset are you?

Want a Brain Boost? Try a Jog—or a Curry

Exercise: you know you should, and yet for many, vanity might not be enough to get you on the old treadmill first thing in the morning.

So if that isn’t getting you out of bed and into your sneakers, perhaps your brain might do it. No, not do your exercise, but rather, provide the best argument for working up a sweat.

It turns out that during strenuous physical activity, your brain produces a neural chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF for short.

In his book Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, Harvard psychiatrist John J Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Why the fertilizer reference? BDNF strengthens the brain’s electrical connections by boosting their strength and vitality. This means that BDNF plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to rewire itself, often referred to as plasticity.

In an interesting study done in Germany, two groups faced off on treadmills. The first group supplemented their 45-minute exercise routine with two separate 3-minute intervals of intense sprinting. The control group didn’t include the high intensity sprinting intervals.

In subsequent memory tests, the sprinting group showed a 20% increase in word acquisition over the non-sprinters. Not surprisingly, the sprinters showed increased levels of BDNF, where the non-sprinters showed no difference.

Neuroscientist John Medina recommends in his book Brain Rules that we exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day at an aerobic level. Recent Scottish studies support the German findings: extra bursts of brief, high-intensity exercise have a profound effect.

Memory improvement not convincing enough for you? How about kicking your mood up a notch? The neurotropic factor released during exercise appears to increase the output of dopamine and serotonin. Both are associated with well-being and enhanced mood.

Not into exercise? What about Indian food?

Another way to boost your BDNF is by consuming curcumin. It’s one of the main components of the spice tumeric, and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s also “a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.” You can find tumeric in most commercial curry powders, or on its own as a flavoring and a natural food dye.

So tomorrow morning, do your brain a favor and jump on the treadmill. Afterwards, sprinkle a healthy helping of turmeric on your Cheerios. Or better yet, treat yourself to a nice yellow curry at your favorite Indian haunt tomorrow evening. Or do both—your call.

The Science of Epiphany

You know the sweet satisfaction when you suddenly have an epiphany? I’m talking about that “Aha!” moment when the circuits suddenly connect and, seemingly out of nowhere, you are struck with an insight.

Today, using fMRI technology, neuroscientists can watch the revelation unfold on a cellular level. Neurons begin to cluster and activity speeds up, eventually giving way to burst of energy not unlike a mini fireworks show. All this can be witnessed by the fMRI technician about eight seconds before the subject is aware of their impending moment of truth.

So how does this all work?

First, it’s important to differentiate between an actual Eureka moment and a more mundane retrieval of information from your hippocampus, that general purpose library of memories.

Insights are not merely rediscovering misplaced data, like suddenly remembering where your car keys are. They are combinations or reinterpretations of information, creating something entirely different or new. They are the embodiment of what it means to “think outside the box.”

It starts with consciously trying to solve a problem. Then there is the required period of struggle, hitting the proverbial brick wall with no solution in sight. Take the classic father and son riddle:

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child, he’s my son.” How can this be???

This brainteaser plays on the fact that some readers will automatically assume the surgeon is male.

Suppose you are one of those people whose gender bias prevented you from seeing the answer right away. Even though your prefrontal cortex might be stumped, unbeknownst to you, your subconscious brain is still working overtime trying to figure it out.

Interestingly, it seems that when your prefrontal cortex hits an impasse, it triggers other brain functions to kick into gear. This sets up the opportunity for free association by bypassing your analytical train of thought in favor of the hippocampus’s vast storage of information, feeling, and experience.

Your subconscious brain essentially goes into improvisational mode, and what we call daydreaming is actually this freewheeling engine hard at work. This is a critical aspect of the epiphany process for every one of us, from the average Joe or Jane in the street to Albert Einstein. (Einstein called his daydreaming “thought experiments.”)

Because all this business is going on below your awareness, when the solution floats up into your rational mind fully formulated, it feels as if it came out of nowhere.

Only the conscious brain has language. This is probably a good thing because if your subconscious brain could talk, it might very well demand a thank you, or at the very least an “I told you so”.

Are You Smarter Than a Mouse?

Are you smarter than a mouse? This was one of the intriguing topics presented at 2013’s Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, on research done by J.F. Gysner, M. Manglani, N. Escalona, R. Hamilton, M. Taylor, J. Paffman, E. Johnson, and L.A. Gabel, all based out of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

If you are a lab mouse, then you are undoubtedly familiar with mazes. Specifically, you’ve probably logged some time in a Hebb-Williams maze. For decades, it’s been the go-to research model: a spacial-visual maze that centers on twelve standard problems, which differ based on the learning/memory task researchers have assigned to you and your rodent buddies.

But the Hebb-Williams maze is not solely reserved for our tiny rodent friends. Its friendly confines have also been used to test the mettle of ‘rats, cats, rabbits, ferrets, mice, and monkeys.’

The Lafayette College team had a few questions on their minds. Would it alter test results to use a virtual model instead? And if not, could they run humans through the simulation and compare their performances against mice?

Clearly, a virtual maze is far more desirable in terms of space and construction costs. Also, it’s not nearly as problematic as shrinking humans down to fit into a mouse maze. (Which, for one thing, opens itself up to all manner of tired movie plots.)

Ninety-eight humans, both male and female, participated in the experiment. The study focused on two age groups: children aged 8-12, and young adults aged 18-21. The participants were screened and evaluated on their video game knowledge to eliminate any pre-trial skill biases.

In order to ensure that chocolate pellets would be enough of an incentive to run the maze, researchers skimped on the food until the mice reached 85% body weight. (Apparently the humans needed no coercion to run the virtual maze for chocolate pellets.)

Ultimately, when it came to the final showdown, humans from both age groups were faster and less prone to mistakes than their small furry counterparts. However, taking controls for species into account, the humans and mice performed “similarly”, suggesting their performance could be compared in future experiments.

Additionally, it turns out that using a computer-generated maze on humans did not alter their results. This was particularly good news for the Lafayette researchers, but perhaps not such a boon for the would-be producers of Honey I Shrunk the Kids 3.

So lucky for your self-esteem, it turns out you are smarter than a mouse, at least where maze-running is concerned. That is, until the playing field is leveled and then, well, say hello to your new competitors, the irrepressible Mickey and Minnie.

Umwelt: Beyond the Five Senses, or, the Mr. Potato Head Model

All of the information that comes to your brain arrives through your senses. Sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing are conduits to the perfectly dark and silent world inside your skull where the most powerful processing machine in the world resides.

And yet, for example, we know that we see only a billionth of what is front of us. Even honey bees and snakes see a spectrum of light far beyond what we can detect. The animal kingdom is rich with creatures that have adapted to see, hear, feel, smell and taste far beyond our meager human abilities. Bats can hear insects flying from 15 to 20 feet away, and polar bears can sniff out a seal through three feet of ice.

The entire world of our perception is what scientists call our umwelt, and ours is quite limited. I might have conceptual knowledge of the X-ray that pulses through my body every time I go through security at an airport, but I can’t register it in any meaningful way, and the same is true of radio waves, magnetic fields, and so on. Put simply, I just don’t have the hardware for it.

So it seems we are prisoners stuck in a tiny sliver of objective reality, constrained by the limitations of our biology.

Not so fast, says David Eagleman, PhD and neuroscientist. At San Francisco’s Being Human conference in October 2012, Eagleman discussed a series of experiments that are rewriting our notion of experience, and what it means to, well, be human.

Eagleman explains that the brain’s incredible power lies in its plasticity. Think of your brain as a computer running code. If you can deliver code to the brain, it will figure out a way to run it. Part of the neuroscience Holy Grail is understanding just how the brain does this.

In the animal kingdom, animals have all kinds of interesting physical apertures to detect their umwelt. The blind tick understands the world through odor and the recognition of butyric acid. Vampire bats sense air compression and rattlesnakes have heat pits that send temperature readings to their brains.

Evolution has created a wide variety of biological receptors, but they all plug into a fairly standard processing system shared by many species. The plasticity of the human brain means we can co-opt our sensory delivery systems for unintended purposes.

In one experiment, a picture of a face was represented as a pictograph through needle pricks on a blind subject’s back. The nerve endings in the skin transferred the data to the brain, where it was decoded and the blind subject was able to report what he was “seeing.”

Eagleman half jokingly refers to this substitution of biological receptors as the MPH model of Evolution: the Mr. Potato Head model. He says we are more like Mr. Potato Head than we realize.

No matter what sensory system you use, like a dutiful computer programmer, it will find a way to run that code. The more we take advantage of this, the more we expand the potential of our umwelt.

To that end, Eagleman and his team are in prototype experiments to help blind people “see.” They have created a vest that picks up sound waves bouncing off objects, then sends these vibrations to the brain for processing. The brain can translate this back into spatial information, allowing someone with no vision to perceive the objects around them.

It is mind-boggling to imagine the possibilities. It makes the cochlear implant look like child’s play.

Hold on to your vest; your umwelt will never be the same.

Wisdom, Socrates, and the McRibb (not necessarily in that order)

Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. This simple truth is often ignored.

Maybe it’s not surprising. After all, it doesn’t take much work for information to masquerade as knowledge.

With a million statistics and soundbites at your fingertips, the internet can be an incredible tool for information-mining. But a fistful of data points doesn’t necessary translate to truth. It’s a concept perfectly embodied by Wikipedia, that convenient-but-at-times-questionable fount of facts, inconsistencies, and outright falsehoods.

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The Top Six Errors in Unbalanced Brain Strategy

Recently, I talked about whole brain strategy.

This week, a look at what happens inside a workplace when a company or organization tries to implement a new policy without understanding how the human brain works. If you’ve ever witnessed a giant disconnect between the systems a company claims to use, and the way their employees actually operate (call it Ghost Ship Syndrome, if you will), unbalanced brain strategy may very well be to blame.

So without further ado, I give you: the top six errors in unbalanced brain strategy: Continue reading

Defragging Your Brain’s Hard Drive, a Handy Guide

Stanford neuroscientists have determined that 72 hours after someone delivers information verbally, we tend to remember only about 10% of what we’ve heard. That’s right: we forget 90% of what people tell us. This explains a lot. Our working memory dumps out faster than a guy on an all-prune diet. (Prunes are basically mummified plums––brutal way for a fruit to age)

Teenagers and the elderly have been taking a bad rap for years. It turns out those of us who are neither teens nor elderly have bragging rights when it comes to short-term memory.  What was I talking about again? Continue reading