Learning resides on the boundary between boredom and anxiety. Our inborn sense of wonder and playful curiosity provide a generalized forward momentum and orientation towards learning, but openness to a specific learning experience always requires a certain threshold of intrinsic interest and challenge. We shut down if the task in hand appears too trivial or—at the opposite pole—entirely beyond our capabilities.
We tend to resist the suspension of heartfelt notions about our world and ourselves. Fear can shut down and inhibit learning, but, in the right dosage, risk and uncertainty can be exhilarating and may enhance engagement and connection.
Andrew Brown (2002) Absract Figure. Inks, pastel and charcoal on paper.
Learning is child’s play in the sense that it involves being lost in the moment. Such periods of deep engagement seem to occur below the level of conscious awareness. They are characterized by unfettered connectedness and a different sense of the passage of time. Strangely, the same level of engagement often occurs quite unexpectedly during semi-automatic activities. Creative inspiration may come at the strangest times. A lot is happening under the surface. We can be ambushed by a solution when we least expect it. We recall a name or a fact only after we stop racking our brains in conscious searching. It is as if we can catch a glimpse of something more easily out of the corner of our eye than by gazing straight at it. This can be explained partially by the notion that incommensurability cannot be worked through by linear thinking in an obsolete paradigm. Trying harder can actually make things worse as we become more entrenched. A liminal state of mind is possible if we can somehow let go of engaging the problem head-on.
During such profoundly enigmatic moments some kind of cognitive shifting or reconfiguration is at work. The “Aha!” moment is a coming up for air—an exhilarating return to critical distance—as the efficacy of a new configuration is rapidly confirmed and its possibilities elaborated.
Andrew Brown (1996) Emma Babies. Acrylic on canvas.
American psychologist [1934- ]
For several decades Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his team at the University of Chicago have investigated, what Csikszentmihalyi has termed, “flow”—loosely: the more positive or “optimal” aspects of human experience. He points to a remarkable consistency in how various activities are described by research participants “when they were going especially well” (1990: 48-49). This consistency remains firm “regardless of culture, stage of modernization, social class, age, or gender.” Csikszentmihalyi reports that we experience “flow” when we are “able to concentrate” on “a challenging activity that requires skills” that “we have a chance of completing.” He refers to a “flow channel” which lies between “boredom” and “anxiety” (1990: 74). He (1996: 111) notes that “[p]laying tennis or chess against a much better opponent leads to frustration; against a much weaker opponent, to boredom.” In similar vein he (1990: 52) draws a parallel with music appreciation:
[A] piece of music that is too simple relative to one’s listening skills will be boring, while music that is too complex will be frustrating. Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research on creativity and the “flow” of optimal human experience refers to moments of authenticity when “action and awareness are merged.” In this context he uses vocabulary like “truth,” “connectedness” and “honesty.” Csikszentmihalyi (1996: 112, 166) has a poetic view of the nature of deep engagement:
The musician feels at one with the harmony of the cosmos, the athlete moves at one with the team, the reader of a novel lives for a few hours in a different reality. Paradoxically, the self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness.
Csikszentmihalyi (1996: 138) remarks that we are at our best when we are not thinking. He relates that some of his research participants access their:
highest levels of creativity when walking, driving, or swimming; in other words, when involved in a semiautomatic activity that takes up a certain amount of attention, while leaving some of it free to make connections among ideas below the threshold of conscious intentionality. Devoting full attention to a problem is not the best recipe for having creative thoughts.
Csikszentmihalyi (1996: 104) is more sober with reference to the return to critical distance:
After an insight occurs, one must check it out to see if the connections genuinely make sense. The painter steps backs from the canvas to see whether the composition works, the poet rereads the verse with a more critical eye, the scientist sits down to do the calculations or run the experiments. Most lovely insights never go any farther, because under the cold light of reason fatal flaws appear. But if everything checks out, the slow and often routine work of elaboration begins.
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihaly (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihaly (1996) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York : Harper Collins.
SOURCES FOR BETWEEN BOREDOM AND ANXIETY
We tend to obstruct the adoption of new ideas if the old ones had proved successful. To give them up would mean admitting that a wrong idea had been held for a long time. Palmer isolates fear—“one of the most compelling features of our inner landscape”—as the mechanism at work here. He contends that “[f]ear shuts down those ‘experiments with truth’ that allow us to weave a wider web of connectedness.” With reference to his own experience as an educator, and as a learner, he contends (1998: 36-37) that both students and teachers are afraid:
afraid of failing, of not understanding, of being drawn into issues they would rather avoid, of having their ignorance exposed or their prejudices challenged, of looking foolish in front of their peers.
Paradoxically the very thing that might paralyze learning may, in the correct dosage, allow genuine connection. Palmer points to (1998: 39) Albert Camus’ famous remark that “[w]hat gives value to travel is fear.” He claims that this sentiment “could easily apply to the forays that good teachers make with their students across landscapes of alien truth.” Palmer’s selection from Camus’ Notebooks, 1935-36 seems particularly apt:
Palmer, Parker J. (1998) The Courage to Teach. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers.
the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country... we are seized by a vague fear, and an instictive desire to go back to the protection of old habits... At that moment, we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.
American educator [1939- ]