The flow state is a subjective experience that people report when task performance is experienced as automatic, effortless and intrinsically rewarding. Clara Alameda, Daniel Sanabria and Luis F. Ciria, researchers at CIMCYC, have conducted a systematic review on the neural basis of this phenomenon.
After a thorough literature search (Web of Science, Scopus and PsycINFO), the authors selected studies that measured or manipulated flow state (through questionnaires or using experimental paradigms) and recorded the associated brain activity with different techniques: electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), as well as those that manipulated brain activity with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
In general, the 25 studies found coincide in pointing out the possible involvement of brain structures linked to attention, executive function and reward systems. However, the results are inconsistent among the different studies showing even opposite patterns of brain activity. This heterogeneity is mainly due to the important methodological limitations found in the literature, which lead to question whether the reported neural correlates could be attributed to the flow experience itself.
In conclusion, based on the empirical evidence currently available, it is not possible to determine the neural correlates that occur during the flow state or even the existence of the phenomenon itself.
Alameda, C., Sanabria, D., y Ciria, L. F. (2022). The brain in flow: a systematic review on the neural basis of the flow state. Cortex. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2022.06.005