Author Archives: Jeremey DuVall

About Jeremey DuVall

Jeremey is a writer trying to connect the dots between health, psychology, and productivity. His work has appeared in various spots online including Greatist, Men’s Fitness, DailyBurn, Huffington Post, and more. He lives in Denver, Colorado and tries to get lost in the woods or in a book as often as possible.

The 10 Characteristics of Achieving Flow

Rise of SupermanWe’ve all seen athletes that appear to be operating on a different level than anyone else. We typically use the term “in the zone” to describe this focused state. The athlete or individual can’t seem to do anything wrong. It’s Michael Jordan in the ’86 classic against the Celtics. It’s Shaun White in the middle of an X-Games run.

This state of being “in the zone” is now referred to as flow, an altered state of consciousness that seemingly allows us to achieve the impossible. We’ve all likely experienced it at one time or another whether it was when we’re participating in a sport or putting words down on a page; the work seems…effortless.

In his book, Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler describes the 10 characteristics of achieving flow:

1. Clear goals: Expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities.

Clear goals is one of the most important aspects of flow for three reasons:

  1. It identifies the task
  2. It aligns the task with our belief (why we’re doing it)
  3. It focuses our attention

The last portion, the bit on attention, might be the most impactful. You may have seen the invisible gorilla experiment before. Participants are asked to watch a video featuring a team group of basketball players passing a ball back and forth. The task is to count the number of passes throughout the entire video. In the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla costume walks into the middle of the circle and then walks off. Amazingly, in test after test, people fail to spot the gorilla.

By setting extremely clear goals for the task at hand, we can avoid the “invisible gorilla effect” and hone our attention on the now.

2. The challenge level and skill level should both be high.

3. Concentration: A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.

4. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: The merging of action and awareness.

In many cases, flow states can generate out of body experiences. This isn’t just one person’s account either. It’s consistently reported by the world’s top performers when they’re performing at their best. Brain research has indicated that these out of body experiences are plausible.

The pattern of brain activity believed to create out of body experiences was first identified in Tibetan Buddhists that reported “absolute unitary being,” or basically feeling one with everything.

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and neuropsychologist Eugene D’Aquili put both Buddhists and nuns inside of a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scanner. The scientists discovered a critical part of the brain, the orientation association area (OBB), that goes hypofrontal, meaning it decreases in activity. Kotler explains:

When functioning normally, the OAA is a navigation system. It judge angles and distances, maps course trajectories, and keeps track of our body’s exact location. But to do this last part, the superior parietal lobe must also produce a boundary line: the border of self, the division between finite “us” and the infinite “not us” that is the rest of the universe.

5. Distorted sense of time: One’s subjective experience of time is altered.

This relates back to the out of body experiences explained above. Time, like our sense of self, is moderated by multiple brain areas across the prefrontal cortex. Since some of these brain areas are hypoactive during periods of flow (they have less activity), our ability to compute time is disrupted. Instead, our sense of time is normally captured in rhythms of the activity at hand. Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow:

The objective, external duration we measure with reference to outside events like night and day, or the orderly progression of clocks, is rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the activity.…

6. Direct and immediate feedback: Successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.

Immediate feedback “refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect,” explains Kotler. In moments of flow, we have a direct sense of whether our actions are generating the desired effect or not, and we can immediately adjust if necessary. Take, for example, Laird Hamilton surfing the wave zone Teahupoo. While he’s in the middle of the wave, each action Laird makes has immediate repercussions.

To apply this principle to our own work, Kotler advises tighter feedback loops:

Think daily reviews. Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops— stock analysis, psychiatry , and medicine— even the best get worse over time.

7. Balance between ability level and challenge: The activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.

Scientists have identified an optimum level of emotional activation (straddling anxiety and boredom) known as the flow channel. Achieving this state requires an activity that is difficult enough to prevent boredom but not too difficult that we get overloaded with fear. Scientists have actually quantified how difficult a task must be:

…the general thinking is about 4 percent…That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills.

The difficulty level of a task is important because it keeps us focused on the activity at hand. If you’re doing something with a low difficulty level, your mind tends to drift (think: driving to work, which you’ve likely done thousands of times). When the activity is just past our ability level, it creates a degree of uncertainty; we aren’t sure exactly what’s going to happen. This triggers a release of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter that heightens awareness (among many other effects).

8. A sense of personal control over the situation.

9. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortlessness.

Peak experiences, also termed flow experiences, have been shown to be a necessary element of happiness. In addition, intrinsically rewarding activities have been shown to reduce the hedonic adaptation effect allowing us to stay happier for longer.

10. Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.

Seneca on Practicing Poverty

There is a noble manner of being poor, and who does not know it will never be rich.

– Seneca

Seneca remains one of the most admired Roman Stoic philosophers even today. As a trusted advisor in those days, he rose to much fame and fortune. Still attempting to be grounded, he preached a habit of practicing poverty. The goal was to spend a certain amount of time living amongst the conditions that many of us dread in order to reset our views towards materialism and our definition of success:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’

Even today, we struggle with accepting that material items won’t bring us happiness (at least not for long). Perhaps poverty is something we should all practice.

Triumphing Over Failure

When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home and off their farm. Like other boys his age, he was expected to work to help support the family.

When he was nine, his mother died.

At the age of 22, the company he worked for went bankrupt and he lost his job.

At 23, he ran for state legislature in a field of 13 candidates. He came in eighth.

At 24, he borrowed money to start a business with a friend. By the end of the year, the business failed. The local sheriff seized his possessions to pay off his debt. His partner soon died, penniless, and he assumed his partner’s share of debt as well. He spent the next several years of his life paying it off.

At 25, he ran for state legislature again. This time he won.

At 26, he was engaged to be married. But his fiancée died before the wedding. The next year he plunged into a depression and suffered a nervous breakdown.

At 29, he sought to become the speaker of the state legislature. He was defeated.

At 34, he campaigned for a U.S. congressional seat, representing his district. He lost.

At 35, he ran for Congress again. This time he won. He went to Washington and did a good job.

At 39, when his term ended, he was out of a job again. There was a one-term-limit rule in his party.

At 40, he tried to get a job as commissioner of the General Land Office. He was rejected.

At 45, he campaigned for the U.S. Senate, representing his state. He lost by six electoral votes.

At 47, he was one of the contenders for the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention. He lost.

At 49, he ran for the same U.S. Senate seat a second time. And for the second time, he lost.

Two years later, at the age of 51, after a lifetime of failure, disappointment, and loss (and still relatively unknown outside of his home state of Illinois), Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States.

It’s hard to think of a more inspiring story. Think of Abe next time you suffer a setback.


Why Keeping Up With the Joneses is Futile

If only [blank], I would be truly happy.

We’ve all uttered that phrase at one point during our lives. Deep down, we know we’re telling ourselves a lie. A few days or maybe weeks after the new toy or promotion, we’re right back to baseline looking for the next thing to attach to our value of true happiness.

Our return to a baseline level of happiness after a positive event has been dubbed hedonic adaptation in scientific terms. In short, attaining a higher level of material wealth or being blessed with favorable life circumstances does boost our level of happiness for the near future. However, after only a short time, we re-acclimate to a baseline level of happiness.

For example, an experiment conducted in 1978 “reported that winners of $50,000 to $1,000,000 [remember, this is 1978] in the Illinois State Lottery were no happier from less than 1 month to 18 months after the news than those who had experienced no such windfall.”

Hedonic adaptation doesn’t just apply to positive circumstances; it can apply to negative ones as well. Whereas it feels like a specific event or circumstance (like a divorce for example) might drag us down forever, research shows we can actually be pretty adept at rebounding back from misfortune.

A study on hemodialysis patients found, that on average, they’re able to rebound back to a normal level of health. However, both patients and control subjects asked to estimate their level of well-being on hemodialysis tended to over-exaggerate how large of an effect the condition would have on their lives. This indicates we’re poor estimators of our own happiness, and we project these estimations on others that are experiencing misfortune:

Sackett and Torrance (1978) demonstrated that there are other serious health conditions that do not seem to be as badly experienced by the people living with them as healthy people would expect. (Source)

To summarize – We’re poor estimators of our own happiness; fortuitous changes in our lives tend to produce less happiness than we would think; and we can rebound from misfortune better than we might guess beforehand. The question still looms:

How the hell can I be happier?

Even with hedonic adaptation in place, researchers still believe we can get happier. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, and colleagues created the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model and identified several ways to increase happiness for good.

1. Experience more positive emotions and events.

Positive emotions and events have been shown to slow hedonic adaptation, particularly when they’re achieved in the right set of circumstances. Here are three follow-up tips from researchers:

Focus on performing acts of kindness:

Philanthropic acts have been shown to activate brain areas that are associated with pleasure and euphoria.

Nurture relationships you already have.

…the dynamic nature of social relationships may provide individuals unique opportunities to multiply positive events and positive emotions in their lives.

Pursue intrinsic, self-determined goals (also a requirement for achieving a flow state)

Intrinsic goals ensures that we enjoy the process, not just the final outcome.

2. Contain your aspirations.

…higher aspirations speed up adaptation because as they increase, people need more positive events and emotions just to maintain their original level of happiness.

If aspirations are too high, happiness can become a never-ending pursuit. No amount of positive events or emotions will be enough to match your aspired level of happiness. Intrinsic goals come into play again here.

If individuals enjoy the pursuit of the goal, rather than just its attainment, they will be less focused on the end product of “increased happiness”

3. Experience variety.

“Variety is the spice of life,” or so the saying goes. We’ve seen how variety can actually increase your life span (or at least, how you experience your life). It also plays a crucial role in your happiness:

If a person decides to express gratitude more frequently, but ends up writing gratitude letters to the same person every week, he will obtain less and less of a boost in happiness with each letter.

How exactly do you experience variety while also simultaneously sticking to some semblance of a routine? Lyubomirsky offers a few options:

  • Have several activities going at once. It takes longer to become bored when you’re focusing on a variety of activities.
  • Vary how you accomplish the same activity. For example, while increasing fitness is the overall goal, you can mix-up the way it’s accomplished by taking different classes and choosing difference exercises.
  • Alternate activities. On the topic of happiness, this could mean practicing gratitude for a few weeks and then switching to acts of kindness. By constantly switching back and forth, your mind has less of a chance to adapt to one or the other.

One important takeaway, the focus on variety should be based on experiences, not material items. Buying a different shirt every week doesn’t lead to the same benefits. The variety experienced with physical objects normally entails interacting with that object versus meeting someone new or learning a new skill. The increased variety of experiences leads to an increase in happiness.

4. Practice appreciation.

Appreciating a life change, such as beginning a new positive activity or set of activities, slows down adaptation, allowing people to sustain the boost in happiness from that change.

It’s impossible to appreciate aspects of your life if you don’t take the time to acknowledge they’re there. Taking a moment out of your day to take stock of the amazing elements in your life can greatly boost your level of happiness. If you don’t know where to start, grab a journal and make a note of 1-3 things you’re thankful for each day.

Interested in more? Sonja appeared on The Greater Good podcast back in February of 2013. It’s worth a listen.

Photo credit: Banksy

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow and Happiness

About 30% of the people surveyed on the United States are very happy.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of the flow experience, presents that statistic in his TED talk titled “Flow, the Secret to Happiness.” This level of happiness has persisted over tens of years even though income has tripled. This seems to confirm a lesson many of us claim to know, but few actually practice:

[Past a certain point] increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect how happy people are.

In his book Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler describes that flow experiences might be the foundation of true happiness:

In fact, when Csikszentmihalyi dove deeper into the data, he discovered that the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt their lives had the most meaning, were those who had the most peak experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi bases this assertion off of the thousands of interviews he and his team have done with individuals from all walks of life from composers to figure skaters and writers. His TED talk on flow and happiness is definitely worth a watch.


How Novelty Helps You Live Longer

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing


How We Actually See With the Brain

When we think about our sense of sight, our minds naturally drift to one main area of interest – the eyes. Ever since you were a kid, you have been told that the eyes are the key to our ability to see.

As early as the 1960’s, scientists like Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita have thought otherwise. The new pattern of thinking emphasizes that we actually see with our brains, not with our eyes. Our eyes are just the primary method of transmitting the stimulus to the brain for perception.

The brain’s role in vision can be demonstrated by looking at the “blind spot.”


To get an example of how your blind spot works, cover your left eye and keep your right eye focused on the plus sign above. Slowly move your face closer to or farther away from the monitor until the black dot disappears. The black dot disappears because it’s in your blind spot, a part of your vision where you have a lack of light-detecting cells and thus can’t “see.”

Blind spots aren’t terribly interesting in and of themselves. You probably knew you had them (we use the term “blind spot” quite often when driving). The more curious question is if we have blind spots, why don’t we suffer from gaping holes in our vision as we walk around?

Neuroscientist David Eagleman proposes two solutions in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain:

One reason is because there are two eyes and the blind spots are in different, nonoverlapping locations; this means that with both eyes open you have full coverage of the scene. But more significantly, no one had noticed because the brain “fills in” the missing information from the blind spot. Notice what you see in the location of the dot when it’s in your blind spot. When the dot disappears, you do not perceive a hole of whiteness or blackness in its place; instead your brain invents a patch of the background pattern. Your brain, with no information from that particular spot in visual space, fills in with the patterns around it.

The concept of a “blind spot” helps to illustrate that your brain might have more to do with vision than we previously thought.

Dr. Bach-y-Rita began taking a closer look at vision and the brain’s role in the sense of sight. The result was a device that captured electrical impulses from a camera attached to someone’s forehead and translated those electrical impulses to vibrations that were converted to vibrations through receptors on the individual’s back.

At first, wearing the device while blindfolded and walking around a room would feel awkward. You would just feel random vibrations on your back. But, eventually, Dr. Bach-y-Rita found that participants could actually learn to perceive the vibrations and translate them into knowing how to navigate a room, even while blindfolded.

This represented a stunning discovery. Your brain could learn to navigate your surroundings without the help of your eyes. If that sounds shocking, perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, your eyes are just receivers for the plethora of information that then travels to your brain for processing. Eagleman continues:

To the brain, it doesn’t matter where those pulses come from – the eyes, the ears, or somewhere else entirely. As long as they consistently correlate with your own movements as you push, thump, and kick things, your brain can construct the direct perception we call vision.

In short, your brain can learn to understand the tiny vibrations on your back and help you navigate a room without bumping into tables and chairs.

This concept isn’t just useful when navigating the living room either. Eric Weihenmayer is using it to scale mountains as an extreme rock climber. In 2001, he became the only blind person to summit Mount Everest. Weihenmayer completes all of these feats with tiny electrodes attached to his tongue that receive electrical impulses from a camera similar to the scenario described above.

View of the BrainPort

View of the BrainPort. Photo credit: Engadget

Outside of uncovering how our brain interprets electrical activity from the eyes, Incognito offered many other insights that can help us to understand why we think, act, and feel a certain way. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Are We Learning All Wrong? A Look at Interleaving

When you normally try to learn a skill, you focus on one particular aspect at a time. If you’re student in school focused on multiplication, your homework will likely consist of multiplication problems of varying difficulties. Similarly, if you’re trying to improve your basketball game, you might focus on shooting free throws for an hour. Then, move to three point shots.

This type of learning is referred to as block practice referring to the fact that the skills are broken down and focused on one at a time. Research is now indicating that even though we’ve been using this method for many years, it might not be the best method to learn.

Researchers Tim Lee and Dick Schmidt co-wrote an influential textbook, Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis, popularizing the a technique referred to as interleaving or “variable practice.”

Interleaving is a form of learning wherein participants practice skills as a mixed bag rather than one at a time. With interleaving, a student might practice a multiplication problem alongside several addition and subtraction problems. In the basketball example, you may take a free-throw shot. Then, step back and throw up a three. Finally, you might charge the basket for a lay-up.

Interleaving seems like quite the change of pace from the normal block practice in the school setting. Doug Rohrer, a psychologist from the University of South Florida, explains the problem with the traditional teaching method:

“There are always two steps to solving a problem: identify the solving strategy, and then execute it,” Rohrer said. “In blocked study, [students] know that this is a unit on, say, the Pythagorean theorem, so they don’t need to choose a strategy. All they have to do is execute, over and over.” (Source)

So, to see how interleaving actually works in the classroom, Rohrer approached a seventh-grade classroom in Tampa Bay with a simple experiment. For one group, the teacher interleaved their homework assignments mixing up problems from the current lesson alongside techniques they learned months previously. The other group received traditional “block” homework focused only on the lesson at hand.

At the end of the experiment, the children were given a test. On those concepts that were practiced in an interleaving context, the students scored 72% compared to 38% for those learned through block practice.

Additional research has aimed to identify exactly what makes interleaving so effective. A recent paper identifies the major benefit to interleaving as discriminative contrast. Through practicing different concepts together, aspiring learners can identify the differences between two concepts rather than solely being exposed to the similarities that block learning provides. By highlighting what’s different about two concepts, students gain a better understanding of the idea overall.

We’ve been drilled for years that block practice is the preferred method for learning. Normally, we don’t have a great idea of how we learn best.

The great majority of the participants in the present study, as well as those in prior studies…judged that they had learned more effectively with blocked than with interleaved study. (Source)

This understanding led researchers to conclude with this piece of advice for anyone trying to learn a new skill:

If your intuition tells you to block, you should probably interleave.

Photo credit: Matthew Paulson

The Tool That Changed Surfing (and a Takeaway to Enhance Your Performance)

Teahupoo is a wave zone off the coast of southwestern Tahiti. But, it isn’t just any kind of wave. Described with phrases like “the grinding eye of doom” and “liquid napalm”, Teahupoo boasts a handful of nasty features.

To start, the wave moves in a unique pattern, “detonating laterally, producing a barrel that has accurately been compared to the Lincoln Tunnel,” writes Stephen Kotler in his book Rise of Superman. Add in the fact that it breaks in extremely shallow water with sharp coral reef sitting just below and you have an absolute monster.

The issue with riding Teahupoo isn’t so much finding someone crazy enough to catch and ride the wave; there are plenty of those in the surfing community. Rather, it’s being able to catch the wave in the first place.

Waves like Teahupoo and other giants that tower 60 feet and higher move much faster than any human can paddle. Previously, this limitation forced surfers to top out at 25-footers. That is until Darrick Doerner and surfing legend Laird Hamilton set out on a mission to tame Teahupoo in 2000, a ride that would change the game of surfing forever. 1

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Mental Mistakes: The Availability Heuristic

This is the first part of a series on the topic of mental mistakes, thinking errors that we make on a daily basis. Read the others here.

How frequently would you guess car accidents occur?

To make this kind of judgement, you’re not going to try to count the number of car accidents you’ve seen over a 24 hour period then use some sort of complicated mental algorithm to expand that number into a general frequency. That would be mentally exhausting.

Instead, you’re going to use a shortcut. You’re going to make an educated guess, and more than likely, you’re going to be very wrong.

We make hundreds of mistakes like this on a daily basis, mistakes than can be attributed to mental biases or cognitive errors. Understanding them further can provide some insight into various aspects of our lives such as:

  • How the media shapes your perception of the world
  • Why you can’t accurately estimate the frequency of seven-letter words that have “n” in the sixth position

To understand these items and more, we have to take an insider look at one of the most common cognitive errors we make on a daily basis – the Availability Heuristic.

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