Neurocognitive mechanisms of the flow state

Prog Brain Res. 2017;234:221-243. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2017.06.012. Epub 2017 Jul 24.


While the experience of flow is often described in attentional terms-focused concentration or task absorption-specific cognitive mechanisms have received limited interest. We propose that an attentional explanation provides the best way to advance theoretical models and produce practical applications, as well as providing potential solutions to core issues such as how an objectively difficult task can be subjectively effortless. Recent research has begun to utilize brain-imaging techniques to investigate neurocognitive changes during flow, which enables attentional mechanisms to be understood in greater detail. Some tensions within flow research are discussed; including the dissociation between psychophysiological and experiential measures, and the equivocal neuroimaging findings supporting prominent accounts of hypofrontality. While flow has received only preliminary investigation from a neuroscientific perspective, findings already provide important insights into the crucial role played by higher-order attentional networks, and clear indications of reduced activity in brain regions linked to self-referential processing. The manner in which these processes may benefit sporting performance are discussed.

Keywords: Attention; Mechanisms; Neuroscience; Peak performance; Zone.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neuroimaging
  • Sports