Artificial Flow: Fantastic or Fraudulent

“Flow” is a concept that will be familiar to many jugglers and object manipulators and something that most of us will have experienced at some point and to some extent. The flow state has been made into a rather cosmic and spiritual affair but don’t be put off – it is a genuine psychological concept with empirically identifiable qualities.

The man behind the scientific adoption of “flow” was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University in California. After interviewing hundreds of experts from athletes to chess players, artists and surgeons, Csikszentmihalyi identified four hallmarks of the flow state:

- Complete absorption in the activity leading to the loss of a sense of time.

- The feeling of the activity being rewarding for its own sake rather than a means to some other end.

- Feeling that skills are matched to the activity – it’s not too hard or too easy.

- “Automaticity” or the feeling that the poi are spinning themselves, for example.

Studies have shown that the brains of people entering the flow state – experts performing their particular activities – have reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with higher cognition like language and working memory. This fits the idea of flow as the more verbal and analytical parts of the brain take a back seat and “second-nature” can kick in resulting in the feeling of effortlessness.

Yet more studies have confirmed this with tests showing that by focusing on something external to your body when performing a physical activity, like a swimmer focusing on the water rather than their arms, improves performance. On the flip-side, even experts who focus on their body movement see reduced performance.

The key, it seems, is to turn your conscious thoughts off. This is what the experts do automatically and when novices manage it their performance and learning abilities improve significantly – accessing the flow state can cut the time it takes to become an expert by up to half.

So what if we could induce, rather than achieve, this flow state?

Well, guess what? We can. Well, we can’t but neuroscientists can. The method essentially involves hooking a 9v battery up to the brain (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!) and using the current to depolarise certain areas of the brain.

The resulting effects on people match the four key features of flow perfectly and performance dramatically increases.

Obviously, this technique is confined to the lab at the moment but what if it was freely available? What if you could nip down the shops, buy a battery pack with included electrodes, plug yourself in and suddenly increase your ability to juggle and to learn new tricks? Would this be a good thing? Would it be right? Fair? Or is this simply cheating? No better than an athlete using steroids?

Would you buy this flow-inducing, performance enhancing kit? It’s a question of the ethics of human enhancement.

One of the biggest problems with doping in sport, like steroid use, is that the substances taken are dangerous and damaging to health in the long run. Before we even reach issues about fairness etc. this is enough to disallow the use of such substances. But for argument’s sake let’s assume that this flow-inducing kit is totally safe – there are no adverse short or long term effects on health.

So what else could make the use of this kit wrong? Some might argue that it invalidates one of the core reasons for learning to juggle or spin a staff – the mastery of the human body and achieving feats of skill and excellence through hard work and perseverance. Using “artificial” means as a short-cut defeats the point of juggling / spinning.

But this might not be as convincing as it first seems – we already use many “artificial” means to improve our performance. You don’t juggle with unbalanced sticks; you use the best juggling clubs around; we wrap grips around staffs to enable us to do contact moves more easily; Tiger Woods had laser eye corrective surgery; tennis players don’t use wooden racquets anymore; and swimmers wear costumes that reduce friction with the water.

If all these things are acceptable, then why not the use of our flow-inducing kit? Hard work and perseverance will still be needed to achieve a high level of proficiency but the top levels might just be that bit higher with the widespread use of this kit.

Maybe this kit goes beyond the fine-tuning of equipment and restoring normal capacities and that’s why it’s not acceptable. But arguably, it isn’t going beyond what‘s normal – it doesn’t take us beyond anything achievable by normal means, it just makes it easier to get there. This kit could just counteract the negative effect of our busy and stressful lives on reaching the flow state. What’s the difference between using this kit and using coffee or music to help achieve flow?

It’s not fair. What about those people who don’t want to use this kit to aid their learning? By allowing its use we discriminate against those not up for sticking electrodes to their heads.

Let’s assume this kit is freely available and affordable (and totally safe). Just because some people object to its use doesn’t make it unfair, at least not as unfair as the distribution of training opportunities, for example. Should we not use the internet to spread poi techniques and skills just because some people can’t access it? If you want to be a top field hockey player your parents need to have the cash to send you to a top sports school from an early age to stand a reasonable chance. Is that fair?

You could argue that analytical, verbal thinking is necessary to learn a skill, at least at first, and that this kit, by turning off those parts of the brain will actually inhibit learning. I tend to agree with this point, to an extent.  To learn a difficult contact staff move you need to understand what’s going on in the move and that can require analytical and verbal reasoning. Sticking this kit to your head while trying to figure out what to do might be counter-productive but the benefit of the kit will kick in once you’ve understood this and start to learn how to do it.

This wasn’t meant to be an article arguing totally in favour of this hypothetical kit (which it seems to have turned into). I just wanted to spark some thought and discussion. There is a healthy debate in sport at the moment over what constitutes cheating and why - what is the difference between training at altitude and taking erythropoietin to achieve a similar effect? It’s also interesting to note that beta-blockers, a drug banned in sports, is commonly and uncontroversially used by virtuoso musicians to calm nerves before big concerts. If something is safe, freely available and doesn’t take us beyond human capacities (like growing another arm) then what is the problem with using it, at least in the arts? Then we start to hit the question of whether juggling and other skills are sports or arts, but that’s a subject for another day…

You can find out more by reading the New Scientist article that inspired this post.