Daniel Goleman: Focus, Flow, and Frazzle

I want to show a simple graphic. It’s a relationship
that’s been known in Psychology for about one hundred years. It’s
the relationship between performance in any domain of skill and let’s call it
stress. And actually, technically, this is low this is high. And this axis really assesses
levels of stress hormones in the brain. Cortisol, adrenaline, and so on. And the relationship
is curvilinear. So this is optimal performance. It’s a midpoint. You’re motivated,
you’re engaged, you’re going. So there are some hormones but not too many. This is people who are bored, who are daydreaming.
In the world as human resources as they call it where this 50% but
at work its really high. This is when we’re at our best. This is the state called
Flow. And this is a state that was written about there was an article in Science, the
journal Science, about this state it was called, “The Neurobiology of Frazzle”.
It’s being frazzled. So these are also distinct attentional states. The brain circuitry for
each of these is very very different. When we’re in flow, this is when our attention
is where we want it to be. This is attention at its best. It mobilizes; it allows us to
mobilize whatever technical or cognitive skills we may have so we may operate our best. Whatever
performance skills we have are at their best when we’re in the flow state. The flow state, some of you may know, was
discovered by a group of researches from Chicago who asked people from many walks
of life, “tell us about a time when you were at your best. You outdid yourself”.
And basketball players, chess champions, neurosurgeons all described the
same phenomological state. No matter what they were doing, it was a state where,
well let me tell you about one of the stories actually. A neurosurgeon says, “I
was performing an operation. Before I started, I didn’t really know if I could
do it. But by the end of it, I did it beautifully. But then, at the end of the surgery I looked
around and there in the corner and there was some rubble. And I said, what happened?
And a nurse said, while you were operating, part of the ceiling caved in but
you were so concentrated you did not notice”. Your concentration is two hundred
percent indestructible when you’re in a flow state. I hope that story’s apocryphal
also. Think about it. So in flow, one of the gateways to flow is
to pay full attention. So when you amp up concentration skills, which I’m going to
talk about in a little bit it makes flow more accessible. In flow, usually you’re challenged
to the top of your skill set whatever it is for that domain. You’re also very
adaptable. As things change, you change with them. And very important: flow feels good.
It’s kind of a quiet joy. You’re really digging what you’re doing. So many of the
things we do voluntarily in life, the things we choose to do, love to do, are ways to get
into a state of flow or micro flow as it’s called. This state of being bored involves a different
part of the brain, and it’s a variety of attention. Every variety of attention,
like every emotion, has its function. It’s when they’re out of proportion and out of
place it becomes a problem. So when you’re trying to concentrate, daydreaming
and being distracted is a negative. But if you’re trying to be creative for example,
it’s a positive. The annals of science and mathematics are rife with examples of
someone who struggled intensely, concentrating on a problem, couldn’t solve
it, and then let it go, and the answer came to them in an off time. They’re walking
on the beach. A famous equation, a soluble equation, a guy had been struggling
with it for three of four years. He got the answer as he’s getting on a bus. And
the reason is when we’re in a kind of open awareness; we have more access to parts of
the mind that have more information. That has more life experience, where we can
put together two discrete elements that had not been combined before in a unique
original way that has a useful application. That’s the definition of a
creative act. So there’s a positive here, it’s just when it isn’t what we want to be doing that
it’s a problem. Then there’s the frazzle. Frazzle is a different
attentional state. In frazzle, our emotional centers have hijacked the pre-frontal
voluntary attentional centers. When you’re upset, the mind is arraigned
so that whatever is pre-occupying you is where your attention goes. And that has
a positive function. If you can have constructive worry, you’re going to come
up with the solution. Usually, interestingly, it’s relationship issues. That thing she
said to me. Why didn’t he answer my email? Whatever you know. If I were to ask people
in the room we’d get a thousand examples instantly. We all know what I’m
talking about. That’s where the mind goes. And when the mind, until we solve that, we
can’t let go of it. So the negative side of that is called rumination, where you go through
tape loops of the worry and you don’t get anywhere.

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  1. If you actually want a scientific answer to creating flow please never consult Daniel Goleman. His journalistic renderings of many topics (e.g., Emotional Intelligence, Focus) are often ripped off from others, distorted, oversimplified, and in many cases flat wrong. Take flow. Flow is not about optimal levels of stress, as Goleman posits. Flow comes from research by Csikszentmihalyi and represents a state where you are completely immersed in what you are doing (such as a rock climber who just gets lost in climbing for hours). The conditions for flow reflect the optimal combination of two things: challenge and skill. If something isn't challenging enough, you find it boring. If it isn't at your current skill level, you experience anxiety. In fact, many of the case studied of flow by Csikszentmihalyi reflect people who experience no stress whatsoever and are simply wholeheartedly engaged in an activity they find interesting. This includes artists lost in their paintings, doctors absorbed by a surgery, or musicians engaged in a concert.

  2. AMAZINGLY SAID! I experience this all the time and I've thought about it alot, and this all strikes me as crazy good news cause it's a win win! Like he said its a quiet joy and we do our best at it!

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