How Learning Keeps You In the Flow

What can babies teach us about being calm, inspired and creative?


In a recent study exploring the origins of human learning, researchers recorded the brain activity of 45 11-month old babies when they were in a position to learn something new. The babies watched two people play with a rubber duck. One person pointed at the toy and said, “That’s a duck.” The other pointed at the toy and just said “oooh” in an uninformative way.

Then the same two people picked up an unfamiliar gadget. When the babies saw the person who had earlier named the duck, the babies brains produced theta waves. Conversely, when the other person interacted with the gadget, the baby’s brains didn’t produce theta waves.

To understand the implications of this study, it’s helpful to have some background on the different types of brain waves. Everything you do or say is regulated by the frequency of four primary types of brain waves. Your normal awake and alert waves are beta. When you’re daydreaming, fantasizing or relaxed, you’re in alpha. And delta waves occur when you’re in a deep sleep.

So, what do those theta waves do?

Theta waves happen between alpha and delta when we’re deeply calm, inspired and creative. You find yourself in theta when your mind is learning and processing information. In theta, your body gets flooded with dopamine and other endorphins, which make you feel great. Athletes call this state “Flow.” In a previous article, I wrote about Flow being a state where your inner critic is suppressed and you feel fully alive.

Researchers got babies into the Flow just by naming a duck.

Riding the Brain Waves to Flow

Presumably, the babies had already come to expect that they would learn new things from the person who named the duck. The anticipation of learning made the babies feel good and come alive. In that precise moment, those babies were in Flow.

You might say, well, those are babies; babies are in a constant state of learning. But it turns out that grown-ups, too, produce theta waves when they think that they are about to learn something new.

Do you want to get to that place where your inner critic is suppressed, where you feel fully alive, and where dopamine floods your system?

Spend more time with people who teach you and in places where you learn.

I meet with a mentor once a month to talk about my life on a very personal level. For years, he has been listening to me and offering insights. When I’m busy and time-constrained, I look at that upcoming meeting on my calendar and think about cancelling. “I’m too busy getting things done!” I say to myself. But then, the moment I’m with him, the familiarity of so many lessons learned flows back into my mind. I am calm and alive in his presence.

Who is your mentor? What classes are you taking? What books are you reading?

Take deliberate steps to keep learning, no matter what your age is. It’s central to your being fully alive.



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