New Scientist reawakens that old dream of turning on the creative juices as if you were turning on a tap… or flipping a switch:
I am in a lab in Carlsbad, California, in pursuit of an elusive mental state known as “flow” – that feeling of effortless concentration that characterises 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.
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.”
That is why I’m now allowing Michael Weisend, who works at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to hook my brain up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery. He sticks 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 US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme 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 depolarise 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 practises a skill. The method he is using on me boosted the speed with which wannabe snipers could detect a threat by a factor of 2.3 (Experimental Brain Research, vol 213, p 9).