Flow, Education, and Ritalin

My eyes are glued to the screen. They rarely blink. They become irritated but I do not notice. I am in the zone. The force is with me. I feel it flow through me. I am coding. Even though the coding paradigm may not apply to everyone, we all know that feeling of hyper-attention. When an activity is so engrossing that the rest of the world fades away, we are left mano-a-mano, tête-à-tête, our ego and the task battling together for mutual gain.

In positive psychology the term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe this is "flow". In his seminal work on flow, Csikszentmihalyi uses various experiential self-report methods to study flow, and he has found some key techniques that can help in achieving this state. However, he does not mention the biological mechanisms behind flow. Examining this connection leads to some interesting findings. If the brain functions during a state of flow include the brain's attention pathways, then this likely implicates dopamine as one of the brain chemicals through which flow is experienced. Dopamine is in part not only responsible for regulating attention but is also the primary neurotransmitter of reward. Is flow then a state of constant dopamine rush--a stream of attention and reward causing a physical high? This would explain the addictive nature of flow. Additionally we could then draw further powerful conclusions about the utility of flow in our lives. Specifically a relationship between flow and dopamine suggests further directions of research relating flow to Ritalin and education. There are thus three main topics to address in attempting to make a case that more research into this area would be indispensable:

  1. What are the cognitive pathways involved in flow?
  2. Is dopamine the cause of flow?
  3. Is education a practical application for flow theory? Understanding how flow happens and how it relates to attention and reward can be potentially useful in developing new techniques for learning and also can have broader significance such as in finding non-drug based treatments for attention disorders.

What are the cognitive pathways involved in flow?

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) defines flow as "an intrinsically motivated, task- focused state characterized by full concentration, a change in the awareness of time (e.g., time passing quickly), feelings of clarity and control, a merging of action and awareness, and a lack of self-consciousness". He claims that there are eight contributing factors to this feeling (p.49):

  1.  A challenging activity which requires skills
  2.  The ability to concentrate on the task
  3. The task has clear goals
  4. There is immediate feedback
  5. There is deep involvement in the task
  6. There is a perception of control
  7.  Sense of self disappears
  8. Sense of time is altered The experience of these is so rewarding that people spend their lives in search of activities that can cause it. Csikszentmihlyi studies flow using a survey technique he invented called ESM (experiential sampling method). Over the course of his experiments he has given thousands of participants beepers that go off at random times during the day. The participants then record what they are doing and answer a few questions about how they feel. He found that the conditions necessary for a task to induce flow are that the task is challenging but that the agent has the requisite skills to undertake it, and that as the agent performs the task it remains interesting and provides feedback so that the agent can experience reward. If the task is too difficult the agent would feel stressed or anxious and if the task is too easy it would lead to boredom.

Given this definition of flow an analysis can be made of the cognitive tasks involved. Most of the eight factors are either specific to the domain of the task (such as the skills required) or are feelings evoked during the activity. However, two are directly related to a cognitive ability. The ability to concentrate on the task and to be deeply involved in it requires attention.

William James (1890) gives us the most widely used definition of attention:

It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit [absentmindedness] in German. (pg. 403)

This definition, in and of itself, is remarkably similar to that of flow. Flow in part requires a singular type of attention. If all the right circumstances are present and attention is engaged then flow happens. Neuroimaging has shown that attention as a cognitive system is spread through several brain areas, however higher level attention, also called executive control (not simply visual attention), is located primarily in the frontal cortex (Miller, E. K., Cohen, J. D., 2001). Executive control is the system responsible for planning, initiating behavior, inhibiting inappropriate responses, abstract thinking, and attentional selection (Goswami, U., 2008). To be able to focus on something the mind needs to be able to ignore irrelevant stimuli. During flow the mind also needs to be able to initiate actions and plan the next move. The effects of time altering and sense of self that Csikszentmihalyi mentions are both correlated to this part of the brain as well.

Is dopamine the cause of flow?

It has been shown that the neurotransmitter dopamine is part of the attention regulation system (Nieoullon, A. 2002). Dopamine is one of the primary mechanisms in the brain's reward circuit and takes part in the inhibitory part of executive control (pg. 63). Dopaminergic system deficiencies are often cited as causing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the primary treatment for ADHD is via drugs such as Ritalin (pg. 57). Ritalin is an amphetamine derivative and is functionally similar to cocaine (Genetic Science Learning Center, 2010). Its primary method of action is increasing the levels of dopamine available in the brain. The principal effect of extra dopamine in the brain is increased energy and improved attention. However, Ritalin is often abused not only for the attention enhancing properties but also for the cocaine like euphoria that can occur at higher doses. Conversely drugs that treat schizophrenia are dopamine antagonists that by reducing the available dopamine in the brain also reduce motivation and attention (pg. 72) and even in some cases prevent all feelings of pleasure (anhedonia) (Surguladze, S. et all 2002 pg. 451).

There is evidence that dopamine is essential to the mechanisms of creativity, ideation, and learning. The dopamine pathway increases both arousal and goal- directedness and at the same time decreases inhibition and suppresses competing behaviors (Flaherty, A. W., 2005. pg. 149). To confirm the connection between dopamine and attention, one particular study used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning — dopamine receptors were tagged with radio isotopes and the subjects were asked to perform working memory and sustained attention tasks. The scans then showed if dopamine receptors were activated during the tasks and in which brain areas (Aalto, S., Bruck, A., Laine,M., Någren, K., Rinne, J. O., 2005). One of the brain mechanisms involved in all of this is a brain circuit that senses expected and unexpected rewards and then signals (via dopamine) that we should learn from them (Arias- Carrión, O.; Pöppel, E. 2007, pg. 486). This system is responsible for not only gambling addictions but also for much of our unconscious goal-directed motivation (pg. 484). For instance the dopamine reward and attention circuit has also been shown to be integral in game playing (Koepp,M.J. et al. 1998).

It would be an oversimplification to say that dopamine alone was responsible for all the feelings associated with flow. It is, however, fair to say that it is strongly implicated given its crucial role in attention regulation, reward and learning. This would suggest that flow is really those moments when the brain is in a highly attentive state, when it is being rewarded constantly for each action, and when it is learning at each of those reward moments. What Csikszentmihalyi is offering in his book is a methodology for creating the right circumstances to help facilitate this continuous cycle of expectation/reward/learning that is suggested by the dopamine connection.

Is education a practical application for flow theory?

It is no wonder given the power of flow that Csikszentmihalyi has also turned his attention to studying flow in educational settings. One of the essential parts of flow is that the activity is autotelic, that is has intrinsic motivation in and of itself (Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990, pg. 67). Usually we start an activity because of an external goal, however as we continue that activity there is the possibility of starting to enjoy it for its own sake. That is one of the preconditions for flow and it is also evident in the learning patterns of toddlers — for instance a child after just starting to read will read everything in sight (pg. 130). However in the typical school system flow is hindered by many factors: the distractions of the classroom, the uneven skill level of the class, the anxiety inducing difficulty of certain subjects and the boring simplicity of others. Therein lies the difficulty of the educational system, how to teach unwilling unmotivated students material that is either too hard or too easy in a setting that is distracting.

Csikszentmihalyi proposes that the techniques of flow be used. His first proposal is that students be given the initial extrinsic motivation by example. Teachers who enjoy what they do most often have students who also want that same enjoyment (pg. 133). Given a positive model, the next step is to match the difficulty of the material with the abilities of the students. In a large classroom this is a challenge that does not have a ready solution. Finally, feedback needs to be immediate and learning tasks organized in attainable steps (pg. 131). Eric Jensen (1995) has this message for teachers:

Teaching in a way that encourages students to reach the flow state may be one of the most important roles you have. In this state, learners are highly internally motivated, and learning becomes enjoyable. Help learners reach flow by setting up favorable conditions for it. [...] learning will likely be stifled by a rigid structure. Keep challenge high but stress low. Let learners set the pace while you provide the support. Have them design a complex project that is personally relevant, and then vary the resources to keep the task appropriate to their ability levels. Make it exciting; use teams, simulations, technology, and deadlines while maintaining the appropriate levels of guidance [...] (pg. 137).

Hektner and Csikszentmihalyi (1996) say that "in order to maintain the enjoyment of flow, people must continually engage in new challenges to match their increasing skills, and they must perfect their skills to meet the challenges" (p. 4). Csikszentmihalyi then proposes that some of the biggest dangers to flow are an overemphasis on rules, evaluation, focus on competition and the ensuing self-consciousness that arises from that (Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990, pg. 137). These unfortunately are staples in many educational systems. Jensen (1995) goes so far as to call these methods brain antagonistic in his practical book on brain-based teaching (pg. xiii).

It is at this point that dopamine enters the picture. As schools struggle with students' attentional problems, pharmaceutical companies and modern psychiatry have provided the answer in the form of dopamine increasing drugs. In 2005, 29 million prescriptions for Ritalin and related drugs were written, nearly 80 percent of them for children (Pettus, A., 2006). Regardless of whether ADHD medications are over-prescribed or not, it is obvious that a problem exists.

There have been followup studies into flow and learning (Egbert, J., 2003) showing that flow can exist in classroom settings and that it can be used to achieve higher rates of self reported interest and energy (Rathunde, K., Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2005). In a comparison study of learning states in traditional versus Montessori schools, Csikszentmihalyi found that optimal experience (a term used to describe a positive, flow-inducing, learning state) leads to more undivided interest in the material by the students (pg. 506). A case may thus be made that flow techniques should be further studied not only in the context of enhancing the school experience, but that innovative methodology may be used to alleviate some of the need for amphetamines in schools.

In 1933, John Dewey suggested that the best state of mind for learning is one that is "playful and serious at the same time" (p. 286). Today one can certainly imagine an educational setting where: the material is custom tailored to each student's ability level, the teacher enjoys the material, and in which the student, excited to learn, can engage with the material fully to the point of losing track of time. In a traditional classroom this still seems difficult to accomplish, even with all the techniques that Csikszentmihalyi (2005) and Jensen (1995) mention. However there is no technological barrier to design a system in which students learn through a technology (in a system that automatically adjusts for difficulty like the one employed by the GRE test) such that their minds can be optimally activated. Brain antagonistic models of learning have shown themselves to be problematic at best and in the search for a new methodology perhaps flow theory can provide some insight into the problem of attention and motivation in students.

The correlation between flow and dopamine shows us an area ready for further exploration. If the techniques of flow elicit a type of dopamine high, then studying these methods may provide answers to attentional disorders. This can also drive the realization that the mechanisms behind creative passion are similar to the mechanisms of cocaine addiction, and that can perhaps help find answers to what pushes people toward one or the other or both. Learning can and should be joyful (Wolk, S., 2008) and addicting, flow and dopamine shows us a way to make it so.


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