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Ch-7: Harmonious Functioning Creates Peak Learning, Performance, and Happiness

Part 2: Harmonious Functioning Theories

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter  7, Part 2, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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How does harmonious functioning work?


 Harmonious functioning stamps in memories.
 You can measure your learning and study efficiency 

Several psychologists have made important contributions to understanding the importance of growth as a primary motive. The following four each began from widely different points of view and methods, yet each arrived at similar conclusions. (4)


Dr. George Kelly wrote his 1,218 page The Psychology of Personal Constructs in 1955. I first read it in graduate school. He was a man whose ideas were far beyond his time. Though always influential, his principles have gained acceptance over the years. Today, his principles provide a foundation for many of the latest approaches to cognitive therapy. Every major book on theories of personality includes Kelly's theory as one of a handful presented.

Dr. Kelly viewed our basic nature as attempting to understand the world around us--so that we may best adapt to it. He quotes the poet Shelly: "The mind becomes that which it contemplates" (p.6) to reflect his belief that we develop what I have called mental models of the world.(5) Dr. Kelly also states,

Man looks at his world through transparent patterns or templets which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is composed. The fit is not always very good. Yet without such patterns the world appears to be [so confusing] that man is unable to make any sense out of it. Even a poor fit is more helpful to him than nothing at all.

Dr. Kelly believed that every aspect of the universe could be viewed in a variety of ways. In other words, one person can hold several models or theories that explain the same phenomenon. Each of these models or theories can be partially correct. Our brain automatically chooses the view [model or theory] that seems to best predict future events.

What happens when our "pet theory" doesn't adequately predict events? Or even worse--what happens if none of our theories predict the events? According to Dr. Kelly the result is anxiety. To the degree that our beliefs are not able to cope with inputs--especially higher level beliefs--we will feel anxiety.

Thus, it is as if we each have a head full of little scientists--each trying to build better theories to predict the future. These inner experts each have their own area of expertise (range of convenience). Each inner expert is most interested in events that will affect it. For example, the part responsible for eating and hunger is constantly trying to predict and understand the meal schedule. The schedule may be routine unless the supply of food is suddenly cut off. Then, that inner food expert become active. The increased uncertainty that the food expert feels creates anxiety for the entire cognitive system.

What if these little experts are all confused at once or are in disharmony among themselves? According to Kelly, cognitive confusion is the basic cause of anxiety. The most happy state is one in which the currently active experts find an optimal degree of match [or validation] between their theories and the events they are trying to anticipate. Too little match (too little cognitive control) is confusing and little is learned--it is overchallenging and anxiety producing. Too much match (cognitive overcontrol) is boring and little is learned--it is underchallenging and depressing.

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Psychologists know that if a biological subsystem is either overstimulated or understimulated, we experience these states as unpleasant. If it is stimulated at a moderate degree, then we tend to experience that state as pleasant. This general principle of optimal stimulation or optimal arousal seems to work for almost every cell and system in our mind and body. For example, if our blood sugar is too low, our blood sugar detection system gives us the sensation of being hungry. The taste of food--especially something sweet seems very good. If our blood sugar level is too high--such as after having eaten a lot of sweets--then we may get sensations that cause us to feel sick if we taste something sweet. Our blood-sugar-regulation system is a basic biological system that produces pleasant feelings when the sugar level is within the optimal range and unpleasant feelings when it is either too high or too low.

The optimal stimulation principle also applies to our emotions. Dr. Berlyne (1960, 1967) believed that our brains seek to maintain an optimal level of stimulation. He believed that curiosity, the desire for knowledge, is perhaps our most powerful motivational force.

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Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has taken Maslow's concept of peak experience and led research efforts to understand optimal experience and its relationship to happiness for over two decades. His book is Flow--The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi believes that happiness is of primary importance to people and that it is achieved primarily through controlling our thoughts. He states (page 6):

The optimal state of experience is one in which there is
in consciousness.
This happens when psychic energy--or attention--is invested
in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action.
The pursuit of the goal brings order in awareness
because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and 
momentarily forget everything else.

These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find 
to be the most enjoyable times in their lives . . .

By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, 
such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual. . . .

"Flow" is the way people describe their state of mind
when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and
they want to pursue what they are doing for its own sake.

Notice the similarity between Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's theory and Dr. Kelly's. Both focus on optimal levels of matching between inputs and cognitive abilities. Also, notice the similarity to Aristotle's observation.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi describes many cases of individuals who have experienced the flow experience more frequently and intensely than most of us. Some, such as a dancer who frequently experiences flow while dancing, are not so surprising. Others, such as a homeless man who achieved frequent flow experiences, are more surprising. He had developed a highly active mental life and oneness with his environment. Does it seem incredible that someone we so often pity could be happier than we are? It appears that flow is more a result of mental conditions than external conditions.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has discovered that certain situations and activities seem to make the flow experience easier to obtain. Examples include sports, games, artistic and creative activities, social activities, religious activities, and more challenging work activities. Some flow experiences seem to involve more sensory and physical activities such as sex, athletics, or listening to music, while other flow experiences seem to involve higher mental processes and symbolic skills more. These include activities such as poetry, mathematics, philosophy, or solving an everyday problem.

Yet, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi recognizes that even the most sensory or physical activity must have some higher mental counterpart which is in tune with it or at least allows it to happen. In other words, each cognitive system must actively or passively support the activity to achieve flow [harmonious functioning].

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi provides some general guidelines for achieving the flow experience, but he is not a clinical psychologist. He suggests that more specific guidelines (like those in this book) are needed from someone who has more experience working with clients.

Several research studies have provided evidence that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's main ideas are not only valid, but seem to be valid across many diverse cultures. These studies support the idea that the basic causes of the flow experience are part of human nature, not cultural. They are not dependent upon Western or Eastern cultural factors or religions.

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A major theoretical approach in psychology, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience views our brain as consisting of neural networks. These neural networks are synonymous with what I have been calling cognitive subsystems. Dr. Stephan Grossberg is one of the leading scholars in this field and proposes that when we learn something significant, some neural network [cognitive subsystem] resonates.

The primary activity of each neural network is trying to match current knowledge (in the form of expectations) with inputs. When there is too much mismatch, the network searches for other expectations to match the input. This search process produces arousal. Trying to match inputs with expectations is like a bee-catcher trying to catch a swarm of bees with a net.

If his net has big holes, he can catch only a few bees and the rest can swarm over him and create a great deal of pain. Inadequate expectations [or hypotheses] are like the net with big holes--too much input escapes the expectations [abilities to process the input]. The input which cannot be processed produces increased search resulting in arousal, confusion, or anxiety.

If his net catches all the bees, then there will be no escaping bees to produce additional search and arousal. If the expectations match the input too well, then little is learned and the result is low search for new hypotheses, low arousal, and boredom.

If his net can catch an optimal number of bees, then just enough escape to make the catch challenging and fun. Harmonious functioning is like using a net with a few holes. The few escaping bees produce optimal search, learning, or arousal. It as if the bee-catcher likes to have just enough bees escape so that he can prevent boredom.

An optimal degree of matching between input and expectations causes resonance. Resonance causes optimal stimulation and arousal. It may be the root cause of the emotion of happiness. It may be the major cause of what learning psychologists call reinforcement [at least at a cognitive level].

This resonance between brain cells is similar to members of an orchestra playing together in harmony. The result is a feeling of exhilaration---the "ah ha" type experience. An optimal degree of matching between inputs and predictions is the state that causes optimal learning and optimal stimulation. It is like fitting a key piece of a puzzle together.

I believe that this type of resonance within our cognitive systems is the neural basis for our experience of optimal stimulation, peak experience, or flow. What causes this experience is an optimal rate of new learning. The neural network [or cognitive system] is neither underchallenged and bored or overwhelmed and anxious. From an entirely different theoretical approach, Dr. Grossberg seems to have found a concept of resonance that is quite similar to the concepts of peak experience, optimal stimulation, and flow.

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Harmonious functioning stamps in memories. According to Dr. Grossberg's theory, adaptive resonance is the mental arousal process that actually causes information to be stamped into long-term memory from its current state in short-term memory. He presents a great deal of evidence which seems to support his theory. Thus, when we are most involved and fascinated with something, we are actually stamping it into long-term memory.

Think about your mental state when you are learning the most and when you are most likely to remember something a long time. If you are listening to a close friend talk about an important problem, you do not have to take notes or repeat over and over again what they said in your mind to remember it--you just remember it. You remember it because you were interested in it and your brain automatically stored it away in long-term memory.

Think of other times when you remember well automatically--without studying--watching a good movie, listening to a song you like, visiting a new city, or learning to ride a bike. To learn, get mentally involved in understanding the content of what you are learning and integrate it into what you already know, then you do not need to study.

You can measure your learning and study efficiency by observing your emotions. When you are fascinated, you are in the zone of harmonious functioning and learning at a maximum rate. When you are too confused or anxious, you are not able to understand the content and therefore will not remember it well. When you are too bored or depressed, you will not remember the material.

It may be so old to you that no new learning takes place.

Or, your learning rate may be so slow that you become bored. Most rote learning techniques are boring. Your boredom tells you what researchers in memory already have discovered--that most rote learning methods such as pure repetition are inefficient.

A third cause of boredom is tuning out. If the material is confusing, you may tune-out--leaving a vacuum of boredom.

Any strong emotional experiences may be remembered. Even when we may be having negative emotional reactions, some other part of our brain may be interested in understanding why we are having that negative experience (so we can avoid it in the future) and stamp it into long-term memory.

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Can harmonious functioning occur when we are not learning or involved in a challenging task? Try to think of times that you feel happiest. What activities do you enjoy the most? According to the harmonious functioning theory, all these experiences involve some degree of harmonious functioning in neural networks (cognitive subsystems).

Activities I experience harmonious functioning in most often include tennis, skiing, sex, good conversations, reading, writing, listening to music, seeing a good movie, or appreciating a sunset. I am also happy when I observe that I have accomplished a goal, see that someone else is happy, or read that something good has happened in the world. I can see how each of these situations involve optimal matching between my cognitions (expectations, goals, knowledge, or skills) and some input situation.

Consider any of these activities. How can we apply the idea of harmonious functioning to listening to music? Think of times when you have enjoyed a piece of music the most. Remember when your emotions soared and your mind was filled with visions inspired by the music. It could be any type of music from rock to classical. Examine the actual mental associations, images, and thoughts which were elicited by the music. Note the amount of mental activity, cognitive processing, and learning. It was not textbook or academic learning. Perhaps you never thought of listening to music as a form of learning, but from your brain's point of view--there is a whole orchestra of cells which are, indeed, processing information and learning.

However, the learning is often not just about music, we may associate the music with underlying life themes or other aspects of our life--giving the music important meaning. I still recall a night when I was 22 years old listening to a piece by Ravel. The next day I was leaving Oklahoma City, where I had spent my kindergarten through college years. I was moving to Claremont, California to begin attending the School of Theology. I realized that I was beginning a new phase of my life, and had many visions of the future which I associated with the music. The total experience of listening to that music, my visions, and looking up at the stars elicited a peak experience.

Compare the times when you reached your highest emotional levels with music to the times when you were either overstimulated or understimulated by it. During periods of overstimulation, the music may have sounded like noise. Just the way rock music or classical music sounds to the uninitiated. There is too much new input: the patterns are too unfamiliar for the cognitive system's ability to process it.

During periods of understimulation, the music is too repetitive or you've heard it too many times before. It provides too little new input; the patterns are too familiar to your cognitive system to generate learning. You feel bored.

If you are like me, you avoid listening to favorites too often, so that you won't get too saturated hearing them. Then the music can keep its freshness each time you hear it. That is a necessary condition for harmonious functioning. Listening to a song from a new perspective is another way to rekindle interest. It is our cognitions that must be fresh, not the just the input.

PRACTICE: Accept my challenge. Take any activity or experience in which you felt peak happiness or involvement. Try to apply the harmonious functioning model to your experience. Think of how the input-cognitive processing match was within some optimal range. Compare it to similar, but overstimulating, experiences in which there was too much complexity, challenge, or newness. Then compare it to similar, but understimulating, experiences consisting of too little challenge, complexity, or newness.


4.  The first three theorists made important contributions to my understanding. I had not heard of Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's theory until after most of my ideas were developed. Their different points of view can help you understand different aspects of harmonious functioning.

5. Kelly uses the term construction system which I consider roughly equivalent to the term mental model as I am using it in this book. He also uses the term personal construct, which is similar to the term category--except that it is a dichotomous category.  

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