Neural correlates of experimentally induced flow experiences

Neuroimage. 2014 Feb 1;86:194-202. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.08.019. Epub 2013 Aug 17.


Flow refers to a positive, activity-associated, subjective experience under conditions of a perceived fit between skills and task demands. Using functional magnetic resonance perfusion imaging, we investigated the neural correlates of flow in a sample of 27 human subjects. Experimentally, in the flow condition participants worked on mental arithmetic tasks at challenging task difficulty which was automatically and continuously adjusted to individuals' skill level. Experimental settings of "boredom" and "overload" served as comparison conditions. The experience of flow was associated with relative increases in neural activity in the left anterior inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the left putamen. Relative decreases in neural activity were observed in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and the amygdala (AMY). Subjective ratings of the flow experience were significantly associated with changes in neural activity in the IFG, AMY, and, with trend towards significance, in the MPFC. We conclude that neural activity changes in these brain regions reflect psychological processes that map on the characteristic features of flow: coding of increased outcome probability (putamen), deeper sense of cognitive control (IFG), decreased self-referential processing (MPFC), and decreased negative arousal (AMY).

Keywords: AMY; ANOVA; Amygdala; Analysis of variance; B; BA; Boredom (experimental condition); Brodmann area; CASL; CNR; Continuous arterial spin labeling; Contrast-to-noise ratio; DMN; Default-mode network; EPI; Echo time; Echo-planar imaging; F; Field of view; Flow (experimental condition); Flow experience; FoV; IFG; Inferior frontal gyrus; Intrinsic motivation; MNI; MPFC; MRI; Magnetic resonance imaging; Medial prefrontal cortex; Montreal Neurological Institute; O; Overload (experimental condition); Perfusion imaging; R; Regional cerebral blood flow; Repetition time; Rest (experimental condition); SPM; Statistical Parametric Mapping; TE; TR; rCBF.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Mathematics
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Young Adult