The "flow state" is how neuroscience researchers describe that zone you can get into when you're doing something that you've become highly skilled at. It's a zen-like place in your brain — that state where you lose track of time doing something that you enjoy doing for its own sake, and where the job of doing the task seems to become something you don't even have to think about. You just do it, and you do it right.
The catch, of course, is that usually it takes a lot of heavy work to get to the point where the flow can take over. This is where Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours of practice comes into play. But, over the years, scientists have learned that there are some ways around that 10,000-hour rule. Some people just seem to pick up on the flow easier than others, for instance.
If your brain isn't just naturally inclined toward the flow, though, there is the option of zapping it into line. This is called transcranial direct current stimulation—basically running a very small electric current through specific parts of the brain. In some studies, and for some tasks, it's been shown to induce a feeling very much like a flow state, and possibly make it easier for people to get to a high level of skill faster. Last spring, Pesco wrote about some of the research that's being conducted on this intriguing but still-not-proven technique. Recently, New Scientist reporter Sally Adee tried it out, and saw a significant short-term improvement in her ability to spot and hit targets in a video shooter game.
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
It's not yet clear why some forms of tDCS should bring about the flow state. After all, if tDCS were solely about writing new memories, it would be hard to explain the improvement that manifests itself as soon as the current begins to flow.
One possibility is that the electrodes somehow reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex - the area used in critical thought, which Csikszentmihalyi had found to be muted during flow. Roy Hamilton, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, 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.
The first thing I thought of when I read this: The way drinking one (but not more than two) beers can change the way I approach a billiards game. It doesn't improve my skills, per se—I don't suddenly become graceful with a pool cue. But when it's a game that I have some skill at already, like table hockey, one beer is often just enough to allow me to stop over-thinking and just play the game ... making it feel like I'm better at it then than I am stone-cold sober. I'd be really interested to know if/how these experiences are related.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.