Why Does Superman Listen To Music When He Studies?

All great achievement, argues Steven Kotler, founder of something called the flow genome project and author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, starts with Flow.

What is flow? One way of defining flow is as the compete absorption in what you are doing. It was named and popularized by someone with the strangest looking name possible to an English speaking person: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Here’s Wikipedia on flow.

Why should you care about flow?
Another way of thinking about flow is that it is what’s happening in your head when you are at your best. The key question then is: how do I get into a state of flow? Let me obnoxiously rephrase that in tech jargon: how do I hack flow?

Well, you’ve probably hacked flow tons of times in your student life, maybe without knowing it, by listening to music while studying. More on that later.

We’re told there are actually 17 ways of getting into flow and this podcast, an interview of Kotler by James Altucher, has a lot of good observations

For example Kotler talks about how you need to be at the crossover point between boredom and anxiety. Best way to do that is tackle something hard enough to focus your mind but easy enough that you can dispatch of it without stressing out and breaking your concentration. Hilariously, there’s even a point estimate of the percentage that a task’s difficulty needs to exceed your capability: 4%.

And there’s the chemistry part. Apparently you are looking for a dopamine surge that comes from being challenged a bit. But only a bit. Too much stimulus and you get overloaded into a fight or flight adrenaline surge. Flow, we are told, is actually shown to reduce stress.

Back to studying, which looks now like one of the most flow destroying of all activities. It’s usually boring, sometimes terrifying (I’m going to fail!) and when you need it the most, when you totally don’t understand something, you are more like 50% underwater than 4%.

Music, though, can give you a lifeline of dopamine that might get flow kickstarted. Here’s the NYT.

we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

Music is fun and that good feeling can put you in the moment, even before you get to your favorite song. Translating that surge to the work at hand isn’t always easy. I know I’m prone to spacing out with tunes when I should be focusing, but it helps my chances.

Of course it’s not just studying. Anything that puts extra demands on our minds can benefit from flow. Look at what athletes are doing before big games: immersed in music, getting into the moment, preparing themselves for maximum performance. Now we know why!

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