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How Brain Efficiency Facilitates Flow State Experiences

Flexible and energy-efficient brain dynamics characterize flow experiences.

Key points

  • Frustration-free conditions where the difficulty of a specific challenge perfectly matches someone's skill level facilitate flow.
  • During flow experiences, unnecessary neural chatter goes quiet, and whole-brain connectivity streamlines in highly efficient ways.
  • The "flow zone" is marked by cognitive synchronization and flexible, energetically-optimized modular brain network dynamics.
peterschreiber[dot]media/Shutterstock
Source: peterschreiber[dot]media/Shutterstock

Flow state experiences are marked by feelings of contentment, eudaimonia, and the absence of anxiety or boredom. Creating flow can boost confidence, resilience, and self-esteem while lowering stress and depression risk.

Getting in the zone and losing yourself in a state of flow is key to achieving peak performance. Beyond optimizing one's potential or winning a competition, flow states make us feel good and are intrinsically rewarding.

But what's happening inside our brains when we experience flow? Until recently, the neurobiological underpinnings of the flow experience—and speculation about what facilitates these brain states—was based more on theory than hard science.

New fMRI-based research from the University of California, Davis, sheds light on actionable things we can do to increase our odds of experiencing flow by identifying what's going on in the brain when video gamers are really in the zone. These findings (Huskey et al., 2021) were published on November 11 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Communication.

Thanks to the pioneering work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, what we commonly refer to as "flow" became part of our shared vernacular in the late 20th century. Over 30 years ago, he published a bestselling book (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) that isolated nine components associated with flow state experiences.

Some highlights of this seminal book include his observation that flow states involve "balance between skill level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult)" and "goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities."

Csikszentmihalyi also posits that "the activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action" and that "people become absorbed in their activity, and the focus of awareness is narrowed down."

Intuitively Matching Skill Level and Challenge Level Facilitates Flow

The latest fMRI-based research by Richard Huskey and his UC Davis colleagues builds on our fundamental understanding of flow by focusing on the neurobiological basis of flow during media (e.g., video game) use. The authors write in their paper's abstract,

Here, we show that flow is associated with a flexible and modular brain-network topology, which may offer an explanation for why flow is simultaneously perceived as high-control and effortless, even when the task difficulty is high.

 Duppydupdup/Shutterstock
Flow tends to occur when task difficulty (challenge) and individual ability (skills) are both high. This graphic illustrates Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow Model" and shows how finding a sweet spot where skill and challenge are balanced facilitates flow state experiences, seen here in the upper-right quadrant with a smiley face emoji.
Source: Duppydupdup/Shutterstock

For this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to see what brain areas "lit up" with activity and what brain areas went quiet as a cohort of participants (n = 35) played a video game inside an fMRI brain scanner.

The fMRI neuroimages showed that people who self-reported flow state experiences had the cognitive flexibility to click into an "energy efficiency mode" that effortlessly optimized whole-brain functions by strengthening some neural networks and silencing others.

Cognitive Flexibility, Brain Efficiency, and Flow State Experiences Go Hand in Hand

As expected, the researchers found that when the challenge of a video game's difficulty perfectly matched an individual's skill level and ability, they were more likely to self-report experiencing a flow state. Notably, these flow experiences were marked by robust motivation and attention, a lack of frustration, and the configuration of what the researchers call a "flexible and modular brain network topology."

"When several brain regions are densely connected with each other but sparsely connected with other regions, this is called a 'modular' network configuration," the authors explained in a recent news release. "This reconfiguration is called 'flexibility,' and it is thought to help people adaptively respond to difficult tasks."

"During flow, only the necessary brain structures are networked together in an energy-efficient way," Huskey noted.

The latest findings (2021) on the brain network dynamics of flow experiences corroborate the Synchronization Theory of Flow (Weber et al., 2009) which posits that flow is "a discrete, energetically optimized, and gratifying experience resulting from a cognitive synchronization of specific attentional and reward networks under the condition of balance between challenge and skill."

More research is needed outside the confines of a neuroscience laboratory to see how flexible and modular brain network dynamics are associated with flow state experiences when performing real-world activities.

References

Richard Huskey, Justin Robert Keene, Shelby Wilcox, Xuanjun (Jason) Gong, Robyn Adams, Christina J. Najera. "Flexible and Modular Brain Network Dynamics Characterize Flow Experiences During Media Use: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging." Study Journal of Communication (First published: November 11, 2021) DOI: 10.1093/joc/jqab044

Joshua Gold and Joseph Ciorciari. "Review on the Role of the Neuroscience of Flow States in the Modern World." Behavioral Sciences (First published: September 09, 2020) DOI: 10.3390/bs10090137

René Weber, Ron Tamborini, Amber Westcott-Baker, Benjamin Kantor "Theorizing Flow and Media Enjoyment as Cognitive Synchronization of Attentional and Reward Networks." Communication Theory (First published: October 09, 2009) DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2009.01352.x

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (First published: January 1990) New York: Harper & Row.

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