Neural signatures of experimentally induced flow experiences identified in a typical fMRI block design with BOLD imaging

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Mar;11(3):496-507. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv133. Epub 2015 Oct 26.


Previously, experimentally induced flow experiences have been demonstrated with perfusion imaging during activation blocks of 3 min length to accommodate with the putatively slowly evolving "mood" characteristics of flow. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a sample of 23 healthy, male participants to investigate flow in the context of a typical fMRI block design with block lengths as short as 30 s. To induce flow, demands of arithmetic tasks were automatically and continuously adjusted to the individual skill level. Compared against conditions of boredom and overload, experience of flow was evident from individuals' reported subjective experiences and changes in electrodermal activity. Neural activation was relatively increased during flow, particularly in the anterior insula, inferior frontal gyri, basal ganglia and midbrain. Relative activation decreases during flow were observed in medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, and in the medial temporal lobe including the amygdala. Present findings suggest that even in the context of comparably short activation blocks flow can be reliably experienced and is associated with changes in neural activation of brain regions previously described. Possible mechanisms of interacting brain regions are outlined, awaiting further investigation which should now be possible given the greater temporal resolution compared with previous perfusion imaging.

Keywords: amygdala; dorsal raphe nucleus; flow experience; medial prefrontal cortex; multiple-demand system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Mathematics
  • Mental Processes / physiology
  • Oxygen / blood*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Raphe Nuclei / blood supply
  • Raphe Nuclei / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen