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February 9, 2012 4:31 PM   Subscribe

The New Scientist writes about the attempts of scientists to induce an artificial state of being in the zone (also referred to as "flow") through electrical manipulation of the brain. As a bonus, they also include a forum link to homemade attempts to achieve the same thing. posted by codacorolla (43 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like putting a 9-volt battery on my tongue. Is this the same thing?
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Love the caveat from one of those forum posters: "however i am abit worried about that burning tingling. dont wont to do any permanent damage to my lovely little brain."
posted by rory at 4:35 PM on February 9, 2012


I have this image of a guy on the forum turning on his electrodes, thinking "oh my God it's working!" and then immediately being smart enough to realize he has to rip them off his head right this instant before he gives himself brain damage. And then as soon as they're off, suddenly it seems like a good idea to try it again ...
posted by penduluum at 4:41 PM on February 9, 2012 [26 favorites]


And yet statisticians still try to disprove that athletes get "in the zone" or the "hot hand" or on a "streak", which always annoys the shit out of me as both a sports fan and as someone who played sports growing up. The zone is real, I don't care what your stupid formulas and calculators say.
posted by nathancaswell at 4:45 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Have they tried closing the MetaFilter tab?
posted by outlaw of averages at 4:45 PM on February 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


Why do I need to attach homemade electrodes to my head when I can just pop some Adderall?
posted by asnider at 4:52 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


NOT ALL OF US CAN GET ADDERALL GODDAMNIT
posted by nathancaswell at 4:54 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


As of 4:32 PM there is a bill before the House of Commons to make electrodes illegal.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:03 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


A match made in heaven: New Scientist and the self-administered electroshock scene. What took them so long?
posted by 3.2.3 at 5:09 PM on February 9, 2012


As someone closely involved in research like this, I am extremely skeptical of research like this.
posted by Nomyte at 5:09 PM on February 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


I thought that "flow" stemmed from being intent on a task where the challenges are neither so high that they result in complete frustration nor so low that they result in boredom.

How are the electrodes supposed to do that?
posted by edheil at 5:14 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like putting a 9-volt battery on my tongue. Is this the same thing?
According to Metafilter past history, that is like something else.

Flow typically accompanies these actions. It involves a Zen-like feeling of intense concentration, with time seeming to stop as you focus completely on the activity in hand


There seems to be several different kinds of these. Adrenalized flow is very different from methodical flow and those are different from the sort of blending perfect anticipation and integration of action one can achieve in groups.

Meditation can help for some. Discipline and training is the only possible way I've found to control the hypertime adrenaline thing when you're in the black with tunnel vision, etc.

But the group thing - singing. Any sort of song. I was in a cave with some people this one time and things got a little dicey. There were echoes all over the place, it was dark, solid rock with bits of soft spots in the path. Wonderful place for a firefight really. Worth it for the ricochet alone. And we went from completely fubar to solid singing: "B-A-bay - B-E-bee - B-I-bicky-bi - B-O bo, bicky-bi bo B-U bu, bicky bi bo bu" - all the way down to "Z" and then through again.
We were completely out of tune but in-synch in what we were thinking and what we had to do to get out.
Little cheaper and not as scientific as wiring your brain up with electrodes, but I suspect there's something to tribal groups world wide doing communal singing for the past 50,000 years of human history.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:16 PM on February 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


One has to be skeptical about this avenue of exploration, of course. But I have no doubt that there is a remarkable similarity in the mental flavor of "flow" as I have experienced it in meditation, piano-playing, and skiing. (Pick your own three or so, but the fact that the first is purely mental, the second part mental and part emotional/intuitive, and the third almost entirely entirely physical raises a lot of interesting questions, none of which I am remotely able to answer scientifically.)
posted by kozad at 5:16 PM on February 9, 2012


Why do I need to attach homemade electrodes to my head when I can just pop some Adderall?

Adderall is but an enthusiastic, short-lived national highway project for your brain, turning well-worn dirt roads into 4 lane blacktop highways, but only for several hours at best, and work begins from scratch again the next day.

Electromagnetic cranial experimentation is more like conquistadors in the jungles of South America: not sure what's ahead, and unseen danger just out of sight, and every discovery, every pleasant moment of peace is a potential ambush by the natives, but think of the rewards! To find the mythic itch of soul and scratch it! To forcibly cut a path through the jungle of neurons and find that oblique, innovative pathway that creates links and paths to parts of the mind that would take epochs to evolve on it's own. The most epic short cut in the history of man! Who can deny the thrill of the hunt? Of course, like the conquistadors, they might be chasing an illusion, and wrecking everything along their path, but exploration has never been the safest of pursuits, and in this case the risk is only to the explorer's mind. In any case, the risk should not be taken lightly.

Sorry. Got a little caught up in the moment there. Probably just these ADD meds.
posted by chambers at 5:16 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have this image of a guy on the forum turning on his electrodes, thinking "oh my God it's working!" and then immediately being smart enough to realize he has to rip them off his head right this instant before he gives himself brain damage. And then as soon as they're off, suddenly it seems like a good idea to try it again ...
posted by penduluum at 4:41 PM on February 9 [6 favorites +] [!]


Eponymous in an amusing way!
posted by rainy at 5:16 PM on February 9, 2012


How are the electrodes supposed to do that?

They connect the press release office to the science journalist and conduct hot air.
posted by Nomyte at 5:17 PM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


Adderal doesn't put me in the zone, it lets me leave it.
posted by humanfont at 5:33 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I didn't want to include a disclaimer in the FPP, but I personally take both New Scientist and this article with a grain of salt.
posted by codacorolla at 5:52 PM on February 9, 2012


Combine this with a TENS device on your lower back, and you'll be smart and sexy.
posted by hanoixan at 6:04 PM on February 9, 2012


We are The Borg; you will be assimilated.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:26 PM on February 9, 2012


Isn't using electrodes to simulate flow kinda missing the point?

Like popping a pill to make you happy, rather than changing the elements of your life that are actually bringing you down?
posted by robotot at 6:32 PM on February 9, 2012


I was actually kidding about the Adderall, mostly, but I'm glad that my off-hand comment has sparked some discussion.
posted by asnider at 6:37 PM on February 9, 2012


Let me back off a little and offer a more nuanced perspective. There is legitimate academic research on producing cognitive effects by means of harnessing the brain's electrophysiological activity.

The general aim of this area of research is to explore the direction of causality between the brain's activity and experienced cognitive states. There are many subtle reasons to suspect that in many cases, an external influence on the brain's activity may have effects on the brain's performance and participants' subjective states.

The earliest phase of this research goes back decades, as far as the 1960s, the time when EEG (electroencephalography) started being accessible in psychology labs. The general idea is that the brain's activity can be recorded in real time and replayed to the participant, either as a tone or as some kind of visual stimulus. With experience, this "neurofeedback," then, may give the individual some ability to affect EEG activity at some scalp site, in some frequency band.

This research experienced an explosion of interest in the 70s and early 80s, and then fell out of vogue. Since then it has been limping along, carried on by a scattered handful of academics. The FDA has approved neurofeedback for a number of clinical applications having to do with impulse control, ADHD, and some others. In that regard, it is similar in effect to meditation or another "mindfulness" practice. Where neurofeedback has been applied to other cognitive domains (like creativity), the experimental effects are generally unreliable and quite small, despite decades of efforts to find something dramatic.

The research area may be moribund, but it is surrounded by a very extensive halo of new-age quackery and pseudoscience, simply because people have strong associations between brains, electrodes, and mad scientists. Also, this kind of research is very easy to publicize.

There are several newer, more direct and somewhat more promising approaches to altering cognitive states by manipulating electrical activity in the brain. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are two. Both take a sort of "weed-wacker" approach to affecting brain activity: roughly, they give researchers the ability to inhibit or amplify activity in broad, diffuse cortical regions. The results… well, imagine touching a doorknob and getting a static shock. Your fingers involuntarily convulse. Now imagine the same thing in the brain: we can now zap people on the head and produce momentary, involuntary speech tics and similar things.

These two methods only affect regions on the surface of the brain, where neurons are arranged in ways that allow them to interact with strong magnetic fields and electric currents. The CIA can't point a magnet at you and shut down your medulla oblongata. Efforts to produce lasting effects on higher cognitive abilities (like working memory capacity or problem-solving) are, similarly to neurofeedback research, producing a heap of subtle, unstable, non-dramatic findings. I'm sure we'll get useful, clinically significant therapies out of TMS and tDCS in the relatively near future. What we won't get is "flow on command," or whatever else gets publicized as the logical end of this research.

In sum, the reason this stuff gets funding and publicity is that it's (a) really easy to puff, and (b) really easy to get government funding for.
posted by Nomyte at 6:49 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


What we won't get is "flow on command," or whatever else gets publicized as the logical end of this research.

But what will we get instead? The pie-in-the-sky dreams of strong AI or cheap, renewable energy or medical panaceas will likely never reach their logical ends either, in our lifetimes anyway. Nonetheless they stimulate research in unprecedented ways. Who knows how many tremendous, unforeseen scientific advances were made possible by the funding of glamorous, futuristic enterprises. Big scary laser research begets less scary advances in less sexy fields.

I groan, too, at these pop science, puff pieces. But at least we've got an illusion enticing enough to keep driving progress.
posted by stroke_count at 7:51 PM on February 9, 2012


Combine this with a TENS device on your lower back, and you'll be smart and sexy.

Why not go for the trifecta and get your Sex toys for that TENS unit?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:44 PM on February 9, 2012


I have this image of a guy on the forum turning on his electrodes, thinking "oh my God it's working!" and then immediately being smart enough to realize he has to rip them off his head right this instant before he gives himself brain damage. And then as soon as they're off, suddenly it seems like a good idea to try it again ...

Why am i reminded of the Simpson's here? ;)
posted by usagizero at 9:47 PM on February 9, 2012


Great article, and fascinating research. I'd be interested to find out whether generating a flow state through "endogenous, natural" means is in any way more sustainable than the short cut approach detailed here.

I also suspect there may be an intrinsic link between tDCS facilitating learning via the depolarization of neuronal membranes, and the experience of flow, although this is simply a hunch.
posted by spacediver at 9:56 PM on February 9, 2012


go easy on your EBEs.
posted by oonh at 12:48 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This to me looks like the prelude to some great dystopian sci-fi.
posted by svenni at 2:36 AM on February 10, 2012


My guess is that once this has been found to actually work, and actually able to raise some higher mental states that allow better cognitive abilities or perhaps just better introspection and analysis of one's own being.... it will be made illegal.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:24 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I keep hoping that when people do this cranial stimulation stuff they accidentally run current through the part of the brain stem that handles bladder or bowel control.
posted by srboisvert at 5:32 AM on February 10, 2012


I'm wondering could it be a hoax? Like the moon landing?
Actress Suzanne Somers, who you may remember from the TV show Three's Comany as the ditzy blond with the rocking bod, has promoted the Facemaster electrical face muscle stimulator to no obvious intellectual benefit... HE-HAW
posted by xtian at 5:34 AM on February 10, 2012


There is no flow, there is no zone.
Made up concepts.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:03 AM on February 10, 2012


here is no flow, there is no zone. Made up concepts.

I watched Ray Allen hit a record 8 3-pointers in the 2010 NBA Finals, then miss 13 shots in a row the next game. I guess that's statistical noise? Sorry, I do not buy it. Shooting basketballs is not flipping coins, it's thousands of muscles working in conjunction on TV in front of millions of people. Sometimes the pressure gets in your head. Your shoes don't feel right. Your timing is off, everything seems hard. Sometimes everything seems easy.

"That's why you always have to be humble," Allen said, his low-key demeanor not much different than it is after his good performances. "The game doesn't owe anything to anybody. You've got to work offensively. Every game, every day you have to go out and find your rhythm and make your shots."

Find. Your. Rhythm. Sorry, no guy with a formula is going to convince me to ignore the opinion of thousands of athletes throughout history who are actually in their bodies feeling either in the zone or out of sorts.

Math is not the answer for everything.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:33 AM on February 10, 2012


There is no flow, there is no zone.
Made up concepts.


A wise old blues man once told me something that applies:

If you ain't lived it, you cain't feel it.
If you cain't feel it, don't try to talk about it.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 7:37 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


nathancaswell: "Math is not the answer for everything."

Totally read this as "Meth is not the answer for everything." and was all "I know ADD meds got mentioned, but I don't think anyone was suggesting that meth is the answer for everything"...oh, math.
posted by nTeleKy at 8:15 AM on February 10, 2012


it's thousands of muscles working in conjunction

Whoops, I just googled it and there actually only 640 muscles in the human body, so there's something math is the answer for.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2012


Pssshh, DIY tDCS? Come on, people, nothing beats the adrenaline rush of putting together a device that pulses 1700 volts through a coil on your head generating a current of around 5000A. I've got to say I'm really tempted, but I think I'm going to let the whole DIY rTMS thing play out for a bit before I start working with it. In the mean time, though, tDCS should be a lot safer to experiment with...will definitely be looking into this. I'll let you guys know if I find "the brown spot".
posted by nTeleKy at 8:39 AM on February 10, 2012


Whoops, I just googled it and there actually only 640 muscles in the human body

Your problem is being limited to the human body.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:47 AM on February 10, 2012


We may never get cognitive enhancement this way, but you can bet the police will get the Stupid Ray.
posted by tspae at 8:52 AM on February 10, 2012


Suzanne Somers...Facemaster

The Facemaster is bush league when compared to another 'beauty through electricity' product.

Folks, if you are going to view a product pitch from an attractive, blonde TV actress* about a product that sends electric shocks directly to your face, watch this one. You'll be glad** you did.

Rejuvenique, previously on the blue, and previously again.


*A Joe Don Baker Approved Actress, no less!

** The Metafilter user 'chambers' is legally bound to inform you that the viewing of the Rejuvenique infomercial clip is not guaranteed to cause 'gladness'. A small portion of test subjects did show signs of 'the willies,' 'being creeped out,' or even 'why am I watching this nightmare fuel?'. Consult your doctor before even thinking about buying a Rejuvenique unit on eBay. There's probably a good reason they haven't made the since the 80s. Better yet, show your doctor this clip. Weird him out for a change.

posted by chambers at 5:14 PM on February 10, 2012


In sum, the reason this stuff gets funding and publicity is that it's (a) really easy to puff, and (b) really easy to get government funding for.

*withdraws Stooge-based DARPA grant request*
posted by Smedleyman at 2:40 PM on February 11, 2012


Sally Adee (the author of the NS article) wrote a blog post about her experience with tDCS, and what came afterwards.
Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I’ve experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at.

There were no unpleasant side effects. The bewitching silence of the tDCS lasted, gradually diminishing over a period of about three days. The inevitable reintroduction of self-doubt and inattention to my mind bore heartbreaking similarities to the plot of Flowers for Algernon.
posted by zamboni at 10:58 AM on March 5, 2012


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