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I'm loving the "Doing Stuff with Crazy Aunt Lindsey" series of hands-on science YouTube videos for kids. I can't find the host's full name on the YouTube page or her website, but she's a fantastic presence and so are the kids that appear with her. The result is a series of videos that are adorable, high-spirited, creative, and fun—full of great, simple projects that pack a surprising amount of science "oomph" behind them.
Our pal Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, is joining MAKE executive editor Stett Holbrook for a live video hangout on Google+ at 2pm PST today.
(Photo of Tim Ferriss by Susan Burdick)
“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.
In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?
In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.
A MacArthur Fellow told me that, when he was a teenager, his single mother would drop him off at an industrial supply store on Saturdays while she ran errands. Using library books as his primary resource, he built a linear accelerator in the garage. It wasn’t until neighbors complained about scrambled television and radio signals in the hours just after school and after dinner that his “playful” invention was discovered.
Mark and I are both big fans of Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. Many things that Tim says about fitness, diet, work, and life-hacking have really resonated with me over the years. But beyond the subjects Tim writes about, it's his approach to learning that truly inspires me whenever we see each other or I read his stuff. Like many people I know (including me), Tim is a novelty addict. He's curious about most everything and when he wants to know something, or know how to do something -- like cook, salsa dance, kick-box, speak Japanese, or hold your breath for crazy lengths of time -- he seeks out the experts and immerses himself utterly and completely in the subject matter. That's why I'm excited to read Tim's new book The 4-Hour Chef, due out in a few weeks. I'm sure it has lots of great information about how to cook, but according to Tim it's really a book about how to learn anything. That's perfect because there's a lot I've got to learn. Listen for Tim on a coming episode of our Gweek podcast. Congrats, Tim!
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.