Science and Environment

The signature of 'grace'

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia -

If “grace” could have a signature pattern on your brain, what would it look like?  Grace is that effortlessness that experts seem to exhibit when they do what they do so well whether in sports or music or any other activity. We all know from studies that those who have become masters in their craft have practiced for a very long time before they achieve what seems to be an “automatic” response of their minds and bodies to the craft they are engaged in. It is well-known that those who were born so called “gifted” will never be able to enjoy the full pleasure of her gifts if she did not shape those gifts with experience aimed at mastery.

Many years ago, I have come across many studies on what goes on inside the heads of experts in the moment when they exhibit grace. One of those scientists whose research focused on this was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was reminded of his work when I read Sally Adee’s piece in the online version of the NewScientist dated Feb. 6, 2012. Scientists have a term for this kind of “grace” — they call it the “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi’s series of studies, as Adee summed it up in her piece, detected a pattern in these people who are experiencing the “flow.” If you are an expert in anything, these stages may be familiar to you. First, the all-consuming focus that makes the expert lose all sense of time. Next is a sense that what you are doing is just good in itself and not because of any other reward it will bring. Third is a feeling of the perfect match between what you think you can do and what the situation calls for. And last, you feel that what you are doing is doing itself — like a story writing itself.

Apparently, according to Adee, Csikszentmihalyi took his studies a step further to see if all these stages of being in the flow which is characterized by “a feeling of” writes itself as a detectable signature in the brain. In other words, he went on to find out if “grace” has a signature in its beholder’s brain. He did peer into the brainwaves of chess masters and found that there was less activity in the prefrontal cortex associated with working memory and verbal expression.

At first that did not seem to make any sense since the prefrontal cortex is the very part that makes us plan and think complex thoughts beyond “we hungry, we eat or we scared, we run.” But apparently, grace is characterized by a less intense self-consciousness.

I do not know if I would do the same as Adee did next in pursuit of a science topic. Adee went a step further and tried another scientific experiment that involved being zapped with mild electric shocks while playing a video game with the aim of shooting “enemies.” This form of electric shock has been tried in an experiment I wrote about before which apparently improved mathematical abilities (only for three months). Apparently, there is a machine now being sold that could deliver these shocks safely but not so fast because you could not yet get these shocks like you would get a massage in a spa. The machine is only being sold to researchers.

What really struck me was the comment of a scientist in Adee’s article which mentioned a word I have not come across before — “cosmetic neuroscience.” He says it is like “tailor-fitting” your brain to match the ever-increasing pace of the times. Evidence still has to bear out whether electric shock could be a substitute for “practice” when it comes to approaching mastery. Studies have documented that it really takes about 10,000 hours to be very good at anything. And since there is no such thing as a free lunch, I wonder what price we would pay for replacing 10,000 hours with a few seconds of electric zapping.

I also have an irrational fear. If I were to make a hobby out of “cosmetic neuroscience” so I could have a master’s brain on demand, wouldn’t my brain look like that woman who was addicted to cosmetic surgery that she looked like she was a living, walking example of “warped spacetime”? Until some solid evidence could jolt me out of this fear, I will stick to old-fashioned way of approaching grace, or “the flow.” I will work my way to mastery with sweat, tears and chocolate. ***

For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

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