Creating passionate learners?

The blog Creating Passionate Users is written by a trio who are

all passionate about the brain and metacognition, most especially--how the brain works and how to exploit it for better learning and memory. Oh yeah, and how to recognize when someone else (including one of us) is applying brain-based techniques to get you to do something.

I enjoy reading their insights on learning, but I wonder about the emphasis on "passion." What does it mean to be a passionate learner? How would being passionate differ from being obsessive? How many people are truly passionate, or obsessive, about anything?

According to Dictionary.com, passion is defined as "A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger" and obsession is defined as "A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion." I'm not quite sure where "a powerful emotion" ends and "an unreasonable emotion" begins. Perhaps it's a matter of societal approval as it is for the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic.

I wonder about this distinction because I enjoy learning and a variety of activities, but I find it difficult to consider myself passionate about learning or these other pastimes. Of course, I could be a little strange, but I like to think that more people are like me than unlike me.

We might compare passion and enjoyment to attraction and attachment in Helen Fisher's, an anthropologist at Rutgers, research on love. In her work, attraction, or romantic love, is caused by high levels of dopamine and norephinephrine. It's a euphoric chemical high that cannot be maintained, but eventually wears off. In contrast, attachment, stimulated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, is associated with feelings of comfort, peace, and stability, and unlike attraction can last longer than a year, even a lifetime. Extrapolating, if we consider an educational goal to be life-long learners, we need to move away from passion and toward an enjoyment of learning.

One theoretical construct that can be of use in this move is flow. Flow, a theory developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, a professor of psychology formerly at the University of Chicago, refers to an experience of total involvement and deep concentration. Most people experience flow at one time or another, and some frequently. I can remember being so absorbed in a game of chess or that I was oblivious to my surroundings for an hour. The conditions of flow are clear goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, and matching one's skills to the challenge, none of which relate to emotion.

Flow is a type of intrinsic motivation, a doing of the activity for the sake of the activity rather than extrinsic pressures. Csikszentmihalyi notes that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is needed for people to want to learn, but that intrinsic motivation should be educators' focus "to make children aware of how much fun learning can be."

I imagine the phrase "creating passionate learners" is more hyperbole than anything else, but perhaps we should simply consider motivating students to have "fun" learning.