How to Spot High-Quality Learning? The Nose Knows.


So here’s a question: does high-quality learning — by which I mean deep, deliberate practice — create a telltale facial expression, sort of like what a poker player would call a “tell”?

And if it does, can we use that tell as a guide?

In the book I talk about the “Clint Eastwood faces” I encountered in my reporting at the hotbeds. But lately I’ve been looking more deeply at those faces — the long, intense gaze, the tight mouth, the furrowed brow. One feature that seems to show up every time, whether in violin students or martial artists or algebra students: flared nostrils.

I know it sounds kind of strange. But maybe there’s a deeper biological mechanism going on here. Daniel Kahneman, in his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow, points out that our eyes dilate noticeably and uncontrollably when we concentrate on solving difficult problems. There’s also evidence that other automatic expressions — for instance, the tongue protruding slightly from the lips — have the benefit of immobilizing speech and thus improving concentration. Flared nostrils might be part of a larger set of advantageous reflexes, part of our evolution-built “focus face” we use when we employ all our mental energy to work through tough problems.

So if the nose knows, the real question is, can this knowledge be applied?

One idea: treat the flare like a flashing neon sign that says “Good Practice Happening Here.” That is, if you spot the flare, leave the practicer alone — they’re already in the zone on the edge of their ability where learning happens fastest. And if you don’t see it, alter the environment to create more reaching, more stretching, more failing and fixing. (Of course, this applies more in music and school than in sports, where noses tend to be moving around too fast to watch.)

The other question is, what other tells have you noticed? How do you know when a learner is “in the zone”?

Rate This

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Share This

Bookmark and Share

11 Responses to “How to Spot High-Quality Learning? The Nose Knows.”

  1. Ryan Appleby says:

    Have you read the book “The Genius in all of us?’ They talk about this same concept there. When I train basketball players daily you can see the ones who really want to succeed. When you put a player in deliberate practice where they have to do the same minut skill piece over and over again the player is either engaged in the skill or bored.

  2. Cody Groves says:

    I have never noticed the nostril flare before, but it seems when I try to make my nostrils flare I have a feeling of excitement, maybe there is some correlation between the excitement of getting better and the focus the nostril flare entails. Love the post! BTW I took your post on grit and started researching persistence, determination and the like, and applied it to my life. What I learned defiantly changed my life for the better. Thank You for the spark! Hate to plug my blog, but maybe others can learn a few things from it that took me some research. If you do read it I recommend starting from the oldest post to newest.

  3. liz garnett says:

    Will look out for the nose-flare – sounds plausible but haven’t noticed it as much as the eyebrows coming forward like Gromit’s (as in Wallace and Gromit).

    There’s also the sigh – when people are finding things tough, but they’re on the case, they exhale heavily in a way that is instantly recognisable. It’s like they’re relieving the pressure in their heads by venting their lungs 🙂 This I associated particularly with cognitive tasks – working stuff out on paper rather than practical skills.

    In a practical setting, you know that really deep learning is happening when people find they have sudden blanks on obvious/easy elements of it that they can usually do without thinking. I spend a lot of my life telling people to rejoice rather than worry about these brain farts!

  4. Dale says:

    Great stuff, Daniel. Of course, Michael Jordan is the great instance of protruding tongue when concentrating. I doubt he’s suppressing subvocalization, but he might be shutting out other doubts or thoughts. Can be dangerous in sports though. You might either bite it or insult your competitors. 🙂

    The point I have to keep pounding into my own head is that I’m supposed to be failing when I’m practicing deeply.

  5. Chris Chard says:

    Another attribute that I watch for in my athletes when they practice (my discipline is martial arts) is the level of their breathing. Controlled, calm, rhythmic breath is indicative that they have hit their stride.

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Cody, Thanks for the kind words and for the heads up on your blog — looks great. Gonna go explore it now. And I like what you’re saying about the excitement feeling of the flare. Sorta primal. Best, Dan

  7. Paul Dewland says:

    I have noticed this as well in people in intense states of focus. Although I have not seen research to support this, I personally suspect that it is a primal/instinctual behaviour. If our focus of attention is intensified on a task, our senses are distracted from our environment, diminishing our ability to detect predators etc. I suspect that the nasal flare opens the vomeronasal ducts, which allow us to detect pheromones as an auxiliary sense system (thus the phrase “smell fear”). This also happens when people are angry or afraid.

  8. Mikey Stott says:

    Very interesting! I usually spend more time taking non-verbal clues as to when something “isn’t” working or registering. Frustration, furrowed brows or frowns are my usual cues. I’ll definitely have to look for the positive a little better!
    Love the blogs!

  9. My first thought about nostril flare would be increased oxygen flow into the body, causing more oxygen to be pumped to the brain to help neural circuits fire and myelin to be produced. Would make physiological sense I guess.

    Thanks for all the hard work Daniel – inspiring and changing everything I do as a teacher, coach and parent!

  10. Chrissy says:

    Thank goodness! I used to get terribly embarrassed about my nostrils flaring every time I was focused intently on practicing a complicated (for me) task. My parents used to point it out and tell me to ‘stop it’ when I was a kiddo trying to learn the piano; it made me terribly self conscious about it and I never continued in my lessons much past the age of 10. As an adult, I am now learning the cello and in a video review of one of my practices I noticed again; flaring nostrils! I did a google search to see if there were any suggestions on how to stop this, but maybe it’s not such a big deal. If anyone picks on me; I’ll just kindly inform them that they’re interrupting my higher learning 😀

  11. Ron says:

    Physiologically, flaring the nostrils indicate the brain’s desire to increase oxygen levels, thereby improving function.

Comment On This