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Why Team Flow Is a Unique Brain State

Team flow states rely on inter-brain synchrony; solo flow happens autonomously.

Key points

  • Flow states can be experienced during an individual activity (solo flow) or during group activities (team flow).
  • When team members feel like they're in a unified flow state, their brain waves tend to be synchronized in perfect harmony.
  • Team flow creates a hyper-cognitive state marked by high levels of information integration and neural synchrony.

Earlier this year, a review of research related to the neuroscience of solo flow states focused on "how the brain's locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system may be involved in a range of behavioral and subjective manifestations of flow." The results of this analysis (Van der Linden et al., 2021) suggest that being fully engaged when you're "in the zone" is mediated by dopaminergic and noradrenergic systems that drive intrinsic motivation and promote mood states associated with flow.

Dimitri van der Linden and colleagues propose that the LC-NE system facilitates laser-focused attention, better concentration, and higher levels of engagement.

Flow tends to occur in the Goldilock's zone between boredom and anxiety when someone's skill level is "just right," and they're fully engaged (but not overwhelmed) while executing a potentially challenging task. Notably, when an individual or group of people are experiencing flow, it's often difficult for them to gauge how long they've been engaged in a particular task. Researchers have known for decades that time flies when you're "in the zone." (Csíkszentmihályi, 1975)

melitas/Shutterstock
Source: melitas/Shutterstock

Inter-Brain Synchrony Differentiates Team Flow and Solo Flow

Flow states are marked by heightened attention to the task at hand, positive emotions, fluid movements, and a sense of being fully engaged while doing something that feels intrinsically rewarding and within an individual's or team's locus of control.

During solo flow and team flow, people seem to lose themselves in a way that can make complex actions seem effortless and automatic.

Anecdotally, as someone who's spent decades fine-tuning my ability to create flow states on-demand as both an athlete and a writer, I've found that automaticity curtails overthinking and creates a launching pad for experiencing episodic moments of superfluidity, a frictionless flow state marked by zero entropy. (See, "Supersolidity Sheds Light on the Psychology of Superfluidity.")

Last year, a study (Reinero et al., 2020) found that inter-brain synchrony among teammates could predict their collective performance. Notably, the researchers found that when brain activity became synchronized (inter-brain synchrony) among a group of players, they were more likely to achieve peak performance than if teammates' brain waves didn't harmonize.

"Our results suggest that inter-brain synchrony may predict successful teams where self-report measures and behavioral indices may fail to capture behavior," Diego Reinero and coauthors write. "This represents a step towards understanding the neuroscience and psychology underlying collective performance and cooperation."

Team Flow Integrates and Synchronizes Distinct Brain Areas

A new study into the neural correlates of team flow led by researchers from the California Institute of Technology (CIT) and the Electronics-Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute (EIIRIS) at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan builds on the findings of Reinero's team. These open-access findings (Shehata et al., 2021) were published on October 4 in the peer-reviewed journal eNeuro.

Mohammad Shehata and his team found that during tasks involving teamwork, people who collectively get in the zone and create fluidity when working together show increased beta and gamma wave activity in their left middle temporal cortex. Interestingly, this brain region wasn't activated during solo flow states or when the researchers observed non-engaging teamwork dynamics in a laboratory environment.

"Inter-brain integrated information may predict effective group interaction and complexity, and may serve as a measure of collective intelligence," Shehata et al. write. "Based on both metrics, our data indicate that team flow creates a hyper-cognitive state between the team members, as reflected in significantly higher inter-brain information integration and neural synchrony during team flow."

For this study, the CIT and EIIRIS researchers measured brain activity using electroencephalogram hyperscanning as volunteers performed a music rhythm task and different teams competed by playing a music video game.

During some games, a partition made it impossible for teammates to see one another; this prevented team flow but promoted solo flow. When teammates could see one another and created team flow, the EEG showed a unique brain signature marked by higher beta-gamma brain wave power in the left middle temporal cortex. Study participants also answered questions designed to assess the depth of their solo flow and team flow experiences based on psychometric ratings.

"This report presents neural evidence that teams falling into the flow state (team flow), a highly positive experience, have a unique brain state distinct from ordinary [solo] flow or social states," the authors note. In a summary of their findings, Shehata et al. write:

"We showed the left middle temporal cortex had a unique causality and contributed to information integration during team flow. Finally, we showed that team flow is an independent inter-brain state with enhanced information integration and neural synchrony. The data presented here suggest a neurocognitive mechanism of team flow."

An October 2021 news release about this study notes that "enhancing performance while maintaining enjoyment has many implications towards a better quality of life, including lowering the rates of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety."

Knowing that team flow has a distinctive neural signature could lead to more effective team-building strategies and improve outcomes for any group whose success relies on working together like a well-oiled machine.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to partner with both governmental and industrial institutions to help them "utilize the neural signature of team flow to monitor and enhance team performance."

References

Mohammad Shehata, Miao Cheng, Angus Leung, Naotsugu Tsuchiya, Daw-An Wu, Chia-huei Tseng, Shigeki Nakauchi, and Shinsuke Shimojo. "Team Flow Is a Unique Brain State Associated with Enhanced Information Integration and Inter-Brain Synchrony." eNeuro (First published: October 04, 2021) DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0133-21.2021

Dimitri van der Linden, Mattie Tops, and Arnold B. Bakker. "The Neuroscience of the Flow State: Involvement of the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: April 14, 2021) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645498

Diego A. Reinero, Suzanne Dikker, Jay J. Van Bavel. "Inter-Brain Synchrony in Teams Predicts Collective Performance." Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (First published: September 30, 2020) DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsaa135

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. "Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play" (1975) Jossey-Bass Publishers. San Francisco, CA

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