Positive emotional states lead to engagement, focused practice, and mastery

June 6, 2013 at 7:41 AM
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Positive emotional states lead to engagement, focused practice, and mastery

Lauren Blachorsky QC ’15 and Jim Stellar


In a previous blog post, we discussed a possible brain mechanism for mastering a skill that was partially based on activity-dependent structural changes of the axons of nerve cells (like their long wires), as discussed in Daniel Coyle’s 2009 book, The Talent Code. That book supports the famous statement made in the 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, which states that to become exceptional/expert in a subject or skill, it is typically necessary to put in something like 10,000 hours of focused practice. Gladwell took this idea from a 1994 American Psychologist study by Ericsson and Charness. These authors write,

“In summary, evidence from a wide range of domains shows that the top-level experts have spent a very large amount of time improving their performance and that the total amount accumulated during development is several years of additional full-time practice more than that of other less accomplished performers. This difference is roughly equivalent to the difference between freshmen and seniors in a highly competitive college.”

As a student LB writes,

“To me, this statement is mind blowing, because it implies that over the course of a college career, we can change our brains dramatically. We can go from the equivalent of being a good violinist, to being a world famous violinist in four years, if we use our brains right.”

As a professor and administrator, JS agrees.

So how do we create this focused practice to produce mastery in college education? We propose that everything starts with being interested and excited to learn something, what Coyle calls “ignition” in his book mentioned above. This point may seem intuitive if not obvious. Everyone has heard the folk wisdom that you are better at things that you like, but what makes you like what you like? Studies have shown that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in pleasurable behaviors. But it is also known that dopamine can produce focused behavior. It is this intersection that fascinates us here.

For example, dopamine stimulating drugs are well known to produce the hyper focus of behavioral stereotypy that was seen in the amphetamine epidemic in Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s. During this time, addicts were rumored to take apart and put together their car carburetors dozens of times a day. This same effect is seen in laboratory animals where it is directly linked to dopamine release. Clinically, drugs which stimulate dopamine release are found to help ADHD patients achieve a focus that often eludes them. Some of these prescriptions are known to be resold in a lively drug market among high school and college students for both the purposes of enhanced/focused studying and recreation (simple pleasure). It seems that dopamine release, perhaps in the same circuits that produce reward, also produce enhanced behavioral output and this may be no evolutionary coincidence.

If dopamine release through enjoying a task produces enhanced focus it would contribute to the kind of active focused practice that really builds mastery as opposed to going through the motions without real engagement. Is there any evidence that task mastery itself produces dopamine release that could form what is called a virtuous feedback circle with the task? In the bird song learning tradition (about which we have written before), there is evidence that dopamine is released during singing. What would be good to know is whether the level of dopamine released during song is correlated with the growing mastery of the song, at least in the beginning. There is some evidence that well-learned and practiced motor patterns may become somewhat automatic.

Of course, we think that an internship in the social environment of a productive and engaging workplace gives the student the same experience of developing mastery. On that internship, and in other forms of experiential education, the student may come to see their college education as leading somewhere in which they are interested and thus provide that initial and even sustained engagement. Over a decent interval (e.g. 3 months full-time), that experience could provide a start at the mastery mentioned above, at least enough to know that the field is a good bet to pursue after graduation.

If we could, should we measure dopamine release in this early phase of the experience to see if we have triggered this “ignition” mentioned earlier? Fortunately, we do not have to do so. We can just ask the student for a little reflection, some feedback, some comment. Then we will know. More than that, for those students for whom the placement is good but not great, we may be able to help them figure out how to improve the experience as well as reveal its relation to majors and fields of study. But that is a topic for another blog.

Finally, the neurotransmitter dopamine has been implicated in the neuroplasticity that underlies the actual learning and memory formation, a likely topic of our next blog. So it may well be that not only does a student focus better doing things that they like and of which they see the point, but that student may actually learn and remember better. Who could object to that given the investment of time and money in a college education?

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