Unpacking the Neural Correlates of Flow

Tan, Jasmine. 2021. Unpacking the Neural Correlates of Flow. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Flow is a highly positive experience occurring during an intense engagement in a challenging and enjoyable activity. Although this psychological construct was introduced decades ago, its underlying neural correlates have yet to be properly characterised. Further, most relevant research has considered tasks (like mental arithmetic) that are less engaging and when conducted in the controlled environment of a lab, do not reflect the conditions under which flow is usually experienced. Here, we suggest an alternative framework to study flow by studying musicians, who are engaged in a complex activity they find intrinsic enjoyment and meaning in, and argue that this represents a valid, if technically challenging, opportunity to collect neurophysiological data under conditions conducive to flow and reflect an experience more recognisable as the optimal experience often described as flow. We conducted several independent electrophysiological experiments on professional musicians’ (N=88) self-induced flow state during music performance. Brain responses in the post-flow state, as compared to the post-non-flow state, were associated with lower delta (1-4 Hz) and increased upper alpha (10-12 Hz) and beta (15-30 Hz) power. Effects were predominantly observed over prefrontal brain regions. A neural index of interoception, or how the brain perceives visceral signals, also differed after musicians played music that induced flow versus music that did not. These findings offer novel insight into the neural mechanisms underlying flow experience. Finally, this state of effortless attention and high performance has been described in remarkably similar terms across a wide range of activities. Therefore, as a proof of concept, we conducted a pilot experiment on climbers in action on a climbing wall outside the laboratory environment and discuss some initial findings. Resting state data was also studied to look for neural correlates to dispositional flow. Finally, monoaural beats were used to alter brain states in order to induce flow. These experiments reflect three different ways of studying the neural correlates of flow that can help us reach a comprehensive picture of the brain in flow.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):



Flow experience, EEG, music performance, dispositional flow, emotional intelligence,frontal asymmetry, monaural beats, interoception, climbing

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



30 June 2021

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 Aug 2021 15:08

Last Modified:

31 Oct 2023 13:20



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