Zapping the brain to get with the flow


French pianist Romano Palotini may be able to focus on a task with such intense concentration that time seems to stop: This elusive mental state is known as “flow.” (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
February 13, 2012

I’m close to tears behind my thin cover of sandbags as 20 screaming, masked men run toward me at full speed, strapped into suicide bomb vests and clutching rifles. For every one I manage to shoot dead, three new assailants pop up from nowhere. I’m clearly not shooting fast enough, and panic and incompetence are making me continually jam my rifle.

My salvation lies in the fact that my attackers are only a video, projected on screens to my front and sides. This is the simulation that trains U.S. troops to take their first steps with a rifle, and everything about it has been engineered to feel like an overpowering assault. But I am failing miserably.

Then they put the electrodes on me.

I am in a lab in Carlsbad, Calif., in pursuit of an elusive mental state known as “flow” — that feeling of effortless concentration that characterizes outstanding performance in all kinds of skills.

Flow has been maddeningly difficult to pin down, let alone harness, but a wealth of new technologies could soon allow us all to conjure up this state. The plan is to provide a shortcut to virtuosity, slashing the amount of time it takes to master a new skill, be it tennis, playing the piano or military marksmanship.


Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a backhand in his semifinal match against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the 2012 Australian Open. Federer may be able to focus on a task with such intense concentration that time seems to stop: This elusive mental state is known as “flow.” (Quinn Rooney/GETTY IMAGES)

That will be welcome news to anyone embarking on the tortuous road to expertise. According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time, your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action. Think of the way tennis champion Roger Federer, after years of training, can gracefully combine a complicated series of actions — keeping one eye on the ball and the other on his opponent while he lines up his shot and then dispatches a crippling backhand — all in one stunningly choreographed second.

Flow typically accompanies these actions. It involves a Zenlike feeling of intense concentration, with time seeming to stop as you focus completely on the activity in hand. The experience crops up repeatedly when experts describe what it feels like to be at the top of their game, and with years of practice it becomes second nature to enter that state.

A slippery concept

Yet you don’t have to be a pro to experience it: Some people report the same ability to focus at a far earlier stage in their training, suggesting they are more naturally predisposed to the flow state than others.

This effortless concentration should speed up progress, while the joyful feelings that come with the flow state should help take the sting out of further practice, setting such people up for future success, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University in California. Conversely, his research into the flow state in children showed that, as he puts it, “young people who didn’t enjoy the pursuit of the subject they were gifted in, whether it was mathematics or music, stopped developing their skills and reverted to mediocrity.”

Despite its potentially crucial role in the development of talent, many researchers had deemed the flow state too slippery a concept to tackle — tainted as it was with mystical, meditative connotations. In the late 1970s, Csikszentmihalyi, then a psychologist at the University of Chicago, helped change that view by showing that the state could be defined and studied empirically. In one groundbreaking study, he interviewed a few hundred talented people, including athletes, artists, chess players, rock climbers and surgeons, enabling him to pin down four key features that characterize flow.

The first is an intense and focused absorption that makes you lose all sense of time. The second is what is known as autotelicity, the sense that the activity you are engaged in is rewarding for its own sake. The third is finding the “sweet spot,” a feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated nor bored. And finally, flow is characterized by automaticity, the sense that “the piano is playing itself,” for example.

Tricky to measure

Exactly what happens in the brain during flow has been of particular interest, but it has been tricky to measure. Csikszentmihalyi took an early stab at it, using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain waves of expert chess players during a game. He found that the most skilled players showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is typically associated with higher cognitive processes such as working memory and verbalization. That may seem counterintuitive, but silencing self-critical thoughts might allow more automatic processes to take hold, which would in turn produce that effortless feeling of flow.

Defining and characterizing the flow state is all very well, but could novices learn to turn off their critical faculties and focus their attention in this way, at will? If so, would it boost performance? Gabriele Wulf, a kinesiologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, helped to answer this question in 1998, when she and her colleagues examined the way certain athletes move.

At the time, she had no particular interest in the flow state. But Wulf and her colleagues found that they could quickly improve people’s abilities by asking them to focus their attention on an external point away from their body. Aspiring skiers who were asked to do slalom-type movements on a simulator, for example, learned faster if they focused on a marked spot ahead of them. Golfers who focused on the swing of the club were about 20 percent more accurate than those who focused on their own arms.

Wulf’s findings fit well with the idea that flow — and better learning — comes when you turn off conscious thought. “When you have an external focus, you achieve a more automatic type of control,” she says. “You don’t think about what you are doing; you just focus on the outcome.”

Hooking up the brain

Might there be a way to force the brain into flow? The answer appears to be yes.

That is why I’m now allowing Michael Weisend, who works at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, N.M., to hook my brain up to what’s essentially a nine-volt battery. He attaches the anode — the positive pole of the battery — to my temple, and the cathode to my left arm. “You’re going to feel a slight tingle,” he says, and warns me that if I remove an electrode and break the connection, the voltage passing through my brain will blind me for a good few seconds.

Weisend, who is working on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition — an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.

The mild electrical shock is meant to depolarize the neuronal membranes in the region, making the cells more excitable and responsive to inputs. Like many other neuroscientists working with tDCS, Weisend thinks this accelerates formation of new neural pathways during the time that someone practices a skill. The method he is using on me boosted the speed with which would-be snipers could detect a threat by a factor of 2.3.

Mysteriously, these changes seem to be preceded by a feeling that emerges as soon as the current is switched on and is markedly similar to the flow state. “The number-one thing I hear people say after tDCS is that time passed unduly fast,” says Weisend. Their movements also seem to become more automatic; they report calm, focused concentration — and their performance improves immediately.

Why it might work

It’s not yet clear why some forms of tDCS should bring about the flow state. One possibility is that the electrodes somehow reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area used in critical thought, which Csikszent-
mihalyi had found to be muted during flow. Roy Hamilton, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks this may happen as a side effect of some forms of tDCS. “tDCS might have much more broad effects than we think it does,” he says. He points out that some neurons can mute the signals of other brain cells in their network, so it is possible that stimulating one area of the brain might reduce activity in another.

Others are more skeptical. Arne Dietrich of the American University of Beirut suspects that learning will be impaired if the frontal cortex isn’t initially engaged in the task.

In any case, it is clear that not all forms of tDCS bring about flow. Roi Cohen Kadosh at the University of Oxford certainly saw no signs of it when he placed an anode over the brain regions used in spatial reasoning.

This debate will only be resolved with much more research. For now, I’m intrigued about what I’ll experience as I ask Weisend to turn on the current. Initially, there is a slight tingle, and suddenly my mouth tastes like I’ve just licked the inside of an aluminium can. I don’t notice any other effect. I simply begin to take out attacker after attacker. As 20 of them run at me brandishing their guns, I calmly line up my rifle, take a moment to breathe deeply and pick off the closest one, before tranquilly assessing my next target.

In what seems like next to no time, I hear a voice call out, “Okay, that’s it.” The lights come up in the simulation room and an assistant tentatively enters the room.

In the sudden quiet amid the bodies around me, I was really expecting more assailants, and I’m a bit disappointed when the team begins to remove my electrodes. I look up and wonder if someone wound the clocks forward. Inexplicably, 20 minutes have just passed. “How many did I get?” I ask the assistant.

She looks at me quizzically. “All of them.”

Adee is a technology feature editor at New Scientist magazine, which produced this article.

The four key features that characterize ‘flow’:

Absorption

The intense and focused attention that makes you lose all sense of time.

Autotelicity

The sense that the activity that you are engaged in is rewarding for its own sake.

Finding the
‘sweet spot’

The feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated or bored.

Automaticity

The sense that “the piano is playing itself,” for example.

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