In June 1958, 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, arrived in Stockholm with the rest of the Brazilian national football team to play against Sweden in the World Cup Finals. Just before the game, as the peppy marching beats of the Brazilian national anthem rang out, Pelé’s thoughts wandered. He thought of his mother back home, too nervous to listen to the game on the radio. Then the whistle blew and the men were off. Pelé and his teammates were shocked by the skill of the Swedes, who scored their first goal within four minutes. Only then, he writes in his 1977 autobiography, did Pelé get his head in the game:
…Suddenly I felt a strange calmness I hadn’t experienced in any of the other games. It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt. It was a very strange feeling and one I had never felt before.
I came across this passage, believe it or not, in a study published this week in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. In it, Janet Metcalfe of Columbia University and her colleagues used Pelé’s words to define a somewhat fuzzy psychological concept: the feeling of being “in the zone.” You’re probably familiar with the feeling, especially if you’re an athlete, musician, artist, writer, or video-game aficionado. It’s the mental state of being focused intently on a specific task, a complete absorption that allows you to forget any self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. For me, it’s the (all too elusive) feeling that makes writing fun.
People have presumably been getting in the zone for millennia. But it didn’t get much scientific attention until 1990, when psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published his now-famous book, Flow. In the book Csikszentmihalyi defines flow essentially the same way that Metcalfe defines being in the zone (and her study uses the terms interchangeably). Csikszentmihalyi proposed that flow happens when a person finds a task that is optimally challenging — not too hard, not too easy, just right.
Later studies by other researchers supported this idea. But this so-called ‘balance hypothesis’, according to Metcalfe, doesn’t account for an individual’s variability. I can carry out a task with a constant level of challenge and sometimes feel in the zone and sometimes not feel it. Metcalfe uses professional basketball players as a classic example. Most players show a consistent level of ability throughout the course of a season and are faced with a steady onslaught of competition. And yet, they’ll report being in the zone in some games and in a slump in others. Why?
In 1985 a different research group gave an answer they called the hot hand phenomenon. By analyzing shooting records of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics, the researchers showed that players are amazingly consistent over the course of a season. Nevertheless, on games when a player happens to make a string of baskets, he will say he was in the zone or had a “hot hand.” In reality these lucky strings are statistical flukes; the player is just as good as he ever is. Nevertheless they make him perceive his own ability in a more positive light.
Metcalfe thought the hot hand data offered a big insight into what causes flow. In what she called the ‘balance-plus hypothesis’, she proposed that feeling in the zone comes from two things: an optimal level of challenge (as Csikszentmihalyi suggested) and a high level of perceived performance.
The new study tests this hypothesis. The researchers recruited 45 college students to play a Tetris-like computer game in which Xs and Os float down the screen. When the letters get to the bottom, participants are supposed to use a cursor to catch the Xs and avoid the Os. As in Tetris, when the letters come down slowly the game is fairly easy and when they come down fast it’s difficult.
On the first trial the computer would randomly choose a letter speed. On the very next trial, the participant would choose. Each trial lasted about 20 seconds, and afterwards participants were asked for two self-ratings: how much they felt “in the zone,” and how well they thought they had performed.
On the trials in which the computer selected the speeds, participants gave the highest zone ratings at moderate speeds, consistent with previous studies on the balance hypothesis. But the researchers also found that on trials in which the speed was the same — that is, the challenge to the participant was the same — they gave higher zone ratings after trials in which they had perceived their game performance to be better. (This was true even when they hadn’t, in fact, performed any better, just like the study of the basketball players.)
What’s more, the study found that both the level of challenge and perceived performance affected the participants’ choices. On the trials in which they determined the game speed, participants chose the speeds that aligned with maximum zone ratings. This underscores another important feature of flow: it’s intrinsically rewarding. Why else would they choose the speed of peak zone as their preferred level of play?
Metcalfe and her colleagues are interested in the study’s implications for everyday learning. Her past worked has shown that when figuring out what to study during a work session, students tend to choose materials that are not too hard and not too easy. The research on flow suggests that this is because these materials are the most rewarding.
But the new study adds a second variable, suggesting that students can get even more reward when learning if they perceive their efforts in a positive way. And how can they do that, you ask? On that key question, unfortunately, the current study provides no answers.
The science of zone is still in its infancy, for sure, and I wouldn’t put too much stock into any single new study, including this one. But Metcalfe’s ideas are intriguing enough to try to incorporate in my day-to-day habits. (Because, why not?) Perhaps there’s a way I can periodically give myself positive feedback while writing, for example. Or maybe I could try reminding myself of past successes just before starting something daunting. I’ll let you know how it goes. And in the meantime, I’d love to hear from anybody who has found their own tricks for reaching peak zone.
You might wonder, by the way, whether the Pelé anecdote I began with points to the opposite conclusion of Metcalfe’s. It was only after the Swedes scored a goal, after all, that his mind clicked into the zone. So, at that moment, wouldn’t he have perceived his performance negatively, not positively?
I won’t pretend to know what was in his mind at that moment. But from what he writes in his book, it seems that this goal actually reminded him, and his team, of how good they really were:
“For a moment we were stunned, deaf to the screams of delight from the stands, as if we couldn’t believe such a thing could happen to us,” Pelé writes. Their next emotion wasn’t panic, but excitement. It was “as if the Swedish goal was what Brazil had needed all along to pull us out of our slump.”