Flow and Learning – When It All Comes Together
The beauty of learning a new skill exists in bringing it all together. There is an almost tangible threshold after which you can suddenly feel your mind expanding and integrating your new skill in a profound way. This is part of the path to mastery and a definite access point to flow.
The process described here is known as ‘chunking’. Without being too tangential or abstract about this concept, let me give you an example: To learn a new skill you start with the basic motor patterns. You slowly execute and rehearse these patterns of behaviour day by day until you get proficient at it. That action gets locked in the subconscious as motor memory.
This pattern gets ‘chunked’ in your brain and accessed as a block of information which is a whole rather than split into its sub-components. When learning to play guitar for example, initially we consciously place each finger on the correct fret in order to play a chord. Slowly as we rehearse placing our fingers in the correct location, it becomes automatic – part of our motor memory. When first learning chord A, we would place all our fingers in the correct position, then strum the chord. It takes a whole lot of brainpower to accomplish this, until slowly it becomes integrated into our subconscious and ‘chunked’ in to our brain so that whenever we see it coming up on a piece of music our fingers automatically arrange themselves in the correct pattern.
What is fascinating about chunking is that initially complex tasks actually get packaged in a form that is much easier for the brain to handle. The result is less energy expenditure for higher-level tasks. ‘Chunks’ can exist in multiple hierarchies. The next chunk for guitar playing could be playing a chord pattern that becomes automatic after rehearsing it a number of times. For example, musicians play chords A, D, E, A in order without having to think about the minutiae of the chord changes.
The ultimate experience and gateway to flow occurs when we transcend the motor components of our skills and get into higher-level thinking. We are able to think of the strategy, enjoy the moment and get a greater view of our surroundings – if we are on stage we are not thinking about how to play the chords or the song structure.
Instead the experience becomes about engaging with the crowd, feeling the music and communicating with the other band members. Jazz music is a perfect example of this as musicians subconsciously communicate with the band members allowing the improvised patterns to find their own flow. Transitioning from one solo into another becomes an effortless task. Good jazz groups seem highly connected as if they are playing as one. In jazz this is known as ‘being in the pocket’. Scientifically, we call this flow. The greater the challenge and intensity of this experience the deeper the flow experience for these musicians.
In kitesurfing, this happened to me when I finally mastered the kite and board combo to the point where I no longer had to think about it in detail. I was then able to take a meta-viewpoint on the situation. Suddenly I was able to enjoy the wind in my face, the view of the ocean and take charge of the direction of travel. It became a whole new experience. Once you stop having to Think and you are able to just Do, it is possible to let go and naturally flow will occur.
The bottom line is that there are many layers to learning and mastering a skill. It starts with the basic parts and slowly things integrate into chunks of information, to the point where you are finally able to transcend the skill itself and enjoy the activity on a whole new level. Flow comes naturally to those who forget about the How because the conscious thinking part of your brain switches off as you take your skill to the next stage. Keep persisting through the challenging stages when learning a new skill as the real fruits of your labour lie further down the path to mastery.