An awkward, incomprehensible problem has you ripping your hair out. Too easy a task, on the other hand, and you’re drawing dust-patterns on the desk out of boredom. To work long, hard and well on a project, what’s needed is a level of challenge that pushes you to the edge of your abilities, but not too far beyond. Such a test provokes a mental state that positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow”, known more colloquially as being in the zone.
An intriguing area of study that’s only emerged over the last few years concerns the physiological correlates of flow. If we could find out what’s going on in the body during mental flow, it would make it easier and less intrusive to measure when people are in such a state (at the moment, researchers have to nudge someone absorbed in an activity to ask them how it feels, with the risk of spoiling their flow, or they have to ask them about the experience afterwards). Even more exciting, discovering the physiological correlates of flow could lead to new bodily means by which to help ourselves achieve the zen-like state.
A promising candidate is heart rate coherence – when the rhythm of the heart attains a smooth, sine-like waveform over time. Like flow, it too has been linked with positive emotions and superior performance, including more focused attention and speeded reaction times.
Brenda Mansfield and Roger Couture at Laurentian University in Canada and their co-workers have looked directly for the first time at the relationship between coherence and flow. They invited dozens of undergrads to undertake three different tasks: answering a batch of learning style and happiness questionnaires; playing a bio-feedback game in which a hot-air balloon on a screen rises and falls in line with heart-rate coherence; and completing a Playstation 3 game, inspired by Csíkszentmihályi’s theory, which is designed to trigger a flow state in players as they guide an aquatic creature through an underwater world.
The researchers monitored the participants’ heart-rate coherence through all three tasks via a device attached to the earlobe, and the participants also completed a measure of their state of flow after each task (example items included “Things just seemed to be happening automatically”). The study’s key question was whether coherence and flow would fluctuate in tandem, indicating that the former is the physiological marker of the latter.
Unfortunately, and to put it bluntly, the results were a mass of contradictions. On the questionnaire task (which triggered a surprising amount of flow), heart-rate coherence tended to be lower in students who reported more flow – a negative correlation. During the coherence-inducing hot-air balloon task, flow and coherence did correlate with each other positively, but overall flow was low, perhaps because the students found the task too frustrating. Finally, the Playstation flow game succeeded in inducing flow as you’d expect, but there was no correlation between flow and coherence.
The researchers admitted their results were “puzzling” and they said more research was needed. “We discovered that coherence and flow, however mutually beneficial to optimal experience, can occur and/or be induced independently of one another,” they wrote. “Our results provide evidence of a dissociation between the concepts, as we can turn them on separately.”
Perhaps it was overly optimistic to hope that the psychological construct of flow would map neatly onto the physiological state known as coherence. Life is often more complicated than this. Assuming that flow itself is a unitary concept, which is far from established, it’s more likely that it is associated with a number of different kinds of physiological state. But this is a new field of study, and Mansfield’s team carried out an important first test.
Brenda E. Mansfield, Bruce E. Oddson, Josee Turcotte, and Roger T. Couture (2012). A possible physiological correlate for mental flow. The Journal of Positive Psychology DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2012.691982