Saturday, November 3, 2012

Achievable Through Brain Supplements

Probably most people are able to remember an occasion in which they seemed to be entirely absorbed by a certain activity and felt completely in the 'Zone'; your actions are performed extraordinarily well and come to you automatically. You lose track of time and are entirely in the moment.
This mental state is called flow. The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (gotta love his last name) dedicated his life researching this phenomenon.
While more and more is being discovered about this flow state, researchers are wondering if it might be able to induce flow through the use of brain supplements and other techniques. Imagine popping a brain supplement before endeavoring on a strenuous task and being able to enter the flow state just like that.
Csikszentmihalyi discovered the flow state when he was doing research on human happiness.
His research included subjects that were given a beeper which would give a signal at utterly random moments during the day. Every time this occurred they would write down their activity and rate their happiness. Afterwards Csikszentmihalyi asked people to describe the experience of their activities they rated themselves highly for on the happiness-scale.
An overall pattern became visible which showed that high-happiness-rated activities had quite a few things common.
This led Csikszentmihalyi to identify these 9 aspects which seem intrinsically related to a 'flow experience'
  • 1. Clear goals of a challenging nature.
  • 2. Concentration, an important element of the flow state which may be cultivated by meditation and improvable through brain supplements
  • 3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, something which occurs when awareness merges with action.
  • 4. Distorted sense of time, i.e. one's subjective experience of time is altered.
  • 5. Direct and immediate feedback which allows for behavior to be adjusted as is necessary.
  • 6. A balance between your ability and the actual challenge.
  • 7. Feeling like being in control over the situation or activity.
  • 8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, which means that there is a desire to perform a behavior effectively and for its own sake.
  • 9. Not being conscious of physical needs such as hunger or fatigue.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, "You can't make flow happen. All you can do is learning how to remove obstacles in its way."
If you're a good piano player and are able to play without looking at the keys, you realize that you're fine as long as you're not conscious about what your fingers are doing. As soon as you become conscious about how rapidly you're playing the keys, you start to mess up.
A similar things occurs when athletes are asked to explain how they perform so well; if they attempt to show their skill straight afterwards, they will have a lot more trouble than normally because all of a sudden they start analyzing the actions instead of just doing them.
There is good news however; there actually occurs a physical reaction in the brain which gives rise to the flow experience, so it's definitely not some spiritual experience that only a lucky few can capture.
Everything psychological is simultaneously biological. All your ideas, your mood, your urges; all are a results of the unimaginably complex interplay of the networks of neurons which are firing in your brain. With the ability to improve our brain functioning using brain supplements and neuroscience, it might be possible to easier induce flow state.
It has been argued that a balance between the two brain hemispheres is one of the most important components of creativity. Yet you often see that people in western civilization use their left brain hemisphere a lot more (which is related to logical thinking).
This is probably the result of a number of different factors, such as education for example, which puts the emphasis on logical thinking.
Now I'm not implying that this is necessarily a bad thing, however it does cause the activity between the different brain halves to be a bit out of balance, which is not optimal when trying to get into the flow state.
Fortunately there are many ways to improve the balance between your left and right hemisphere and thus increase your flow experience; meditation is becoming more and more acknowledged by science for its positive effects on brain structure and is renowned for improving the balance between left/right brain activity.
Other improvements in neuroscience are also on the rise, and techniques such as neurofeedback and the constant development of brain supplements seem very promising.