Trouble getting in the ‘flow’: try dialling up some digital caffeine

Many years ago – many, many years ago – I was playing rugby union for my school. It was a knockout semi-final. Late in the game, I had scored a try to even the scores and now I was attempting to convert a reasonably difficult shot to almost certainly win the game and send us into the grand final.

You might expect I would be nervous standing over that ball but I was nothing of the sort. I was as calm as I ever have been. Because I had been there before. I had taken this shot; I knew the ball was bound to go sailing over the black dot. It was preordained. I could have taken that kick with my eyes closed and still knocked it over.

I moved in and kicked truly. We had won … until one of our forwards took the ensuing kick-off and threw an utterly unnecessary pass. The opposition gleefully intercepted it and scampered away for the match-winning try in the game’s final moment.

Maybe it was the dejection of losing that made me never speak about the calm certainty I had felt taking the kick. In fact, I had not thought about that incident for years until recently when I listened to a podcast discussing the concept of “being in the zone”.

In their 1999 study Michelle Young and Janet Pain describe this state as “a magical and special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing”.

Now I don’t want to bang my own drum or anything but I did have a pretty good day all those years ago playing rugby. It was just one of those occasions when everything worked. I felt settled and the pace of the game seemed slower to me than usual. For whatever reason, I was in the zone. I had attained “flow”.

My teammate who threw the intercept pass … not so much.

Of course flow is manifested in many endeavours, not just athletic ones. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks of flow as a state in which people “are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities”.

Csikszentmihalyi describes the feeling as “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”

Almost certainly, you know this feeling – we have all experienced it at certain times. Even (or perhaps especially) at work, you might have been so focused on a particular task or outcome that time disappears. You react intuitively; you can see and deal with issues almost before they emerge. You are in flow.

But if you’re anything like me, flow never arrives when you want it to. Like now, writing this. I’d love to be so immersed in my own actions that the words just pour out with meaning and eloquence but it just ain’t happening. It’s hard work! I am not going with the flow, the flow is going without me!

Wouldn’t it be good if you could just make flow happen?

Sure, you could simplify your environment and focus on your one most important task until immersion in it become automatic. And, yeah, I suppose sharpening your focus by engaging in social risks and increasing the complexity of your tasks might help a bit.

But it sounds like hard work. What I want is an on button, a ‘make flow go now’ switch.

Say hello to Thync, wearable tech designed to hack your brain … in a good way. Thync, and other brain stimulation devices like it, are at the forefront of consumer neurotechnology. It uses transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to change the sensitivity of neurons in the brain. In short, you can slap on Thync and dial up some calm, just like in a Philip K Dick novel.

Over 2000 subjects have tested the device and Thync is only too happy to spruik the science behind the tech. Does it work? Well, according to James Stables at “My mind felt bright, clear and alert. It was digital caffeine”.

Other reviews are less enthusiastic but the haggling seems to be over the magnitude of the effect rather than whether the effect exists. It seems Thync really is capable of altering your mood.

It may not be flow in a can (or in a head patch, as the case may be) but Thync and similar devices could be the vanguard of technology that will one day allow us to stimulate creativity or energy or serenity simply by flicking a switch.

The question then becomes: is that a good thing?

I don’t feel overly qualified to answer that one so I will leave it dangling out there. One thing I will note, however, is that one industry Thync is especially targeting is sports – energy vibes before athletes compete and “chill” vibes to help them calm more quickly after performing.

Apparently, the results at this early stage are encouraging.

If only I could have slapped a Thync on my teammate all those years ago.



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