# Is it possible to detect the mental flow state with EEG?

I know that it is possible to detect "focus" with a consumer EEG with a single electrode and a reference point (ear clip), even without conductive gel, but is it possible to detect a flow state with any level of technology (whether it be professional or consumer)? Are flow states and focus synonymous? Is the mechanism of flow by it's nature undetectable by EEG?

• Cool question! All I can contribute off the top of my head is to say that flow and focus are not synonymous. Beyond task-specific concentration, flow often implies a lapse in awareness of oneself and of the passage of time. Flow is also often euphoric (arguably even a peak experience) and dependent on an optimal level of arousal. IMO, focus is a somewhat broader term. This ought to be good news though, in as much as it implies that flow experience should be a more homogeneous state of mind conducive to more reliable EEG patterns. Jun 17, 2014 at 18:22
• Note that nothing can be detected with a single electrode, as electricity only flows between two points and current exists only in reference to two points. Moreover, I do not think the question is answerable; I do not think it's likely that this task can be achieved considering even the detection of focus is wonky with a full electrode set in lab conditions, and I'm not aware of anybody who's (convincingly) tried to measure flow (though I personally would love to try!), but we can't prove it's impossible.
– jona
Jun 17, 2014 at 20:36
• Corrected the description of the test setup and I'll think about your comments in regards to my question being unanswerable. Jun 18, 2014 at 14:05
• I think a first step would be qualifying the statement about the detection of focus via such a reduced setup. Really, if it were that simple, a bunch of extremely smart researchers I follow who've been trying to achieve just that using state of the art lab tech for decades now would in retrospect look like a bunch of idiots. However, as a greatly less optimistic question ("has anybody yet investigated the flow state with the EEG?"), I think it's quite interesting.
– jona
Jun 18, 2014 at 22:37
• There are research papers on neural correlates of Csíkszentmihályi's flow (but not too many). The easiest way is to search for Csikszentmihalyi EEG or Csikszentmihalyi fMRI, with much more results from the later (and some related to other states of mind related to creativity and mindfulness). Jul 31, 2015 at 14:33

## 2 Answers

Bearing in mind the fact that I can't prove a negative, I'm going to say "No, it's not (yet) possible".

Flow is rather loosely defined (e.g. "merging of action and awareness"), so coming up with hard measures is a challenge in and of itself -- even without bringing electrophysiology into the equasion. As a Positive Psychology concept, it belongs to the realm of "soft science" psychology, and this tends to make fuzzy things stay fuzzy. (Please note that I'm not using "soft science" pejoratively).

I think the best you can do is measure correlates of alertness and attention (e.g. look for desynchronization in the alpha band). If you come up with a very clever design, you might even be able to elicit ERP components related to conscious awareness of a stimulus of interest (e.g. P300b complex), but even that will be very difficult in non-laboratory conditions.

Alternatively, you could turn to machine learning to search for patterns associated with the conscious processing of a stimulus of interest. If you want to go that route, I'd strongly encourage you to read one of my colleagues' Ph.D dissertation [1]. This dissertation proposes some novel approaches to pattern classification with EEG (and MEG/iEEG). Note that this problem is a much easier one (classification of non-communicative patients). That, along with the insane amount of noise you're likely to get and the need for a very inventive design, earns you a hearty "good luck" ;)

• Your perspective is very unlike what people actually doing this kind of research would be doing. You're coming from a event-related perspective (talking about ERD, ERP, stimulus processing ...). State detection typically focuses on band power, repeated patterns like spindles, and topographical/source aspects like microstates. Look at sleep research, or the people doing drowsiness detection.
– jona
Jun 19, 2014 at 11:21
• @jona, Much of what is in the PDF I linked to is about spectral analysis, although I admittedly should have focused on that a bit more in my answer. Your point is well-taken. Still, I'm fairly certain that what Seanny123 wants to do isn't yet possible, if only because of the loose definition of "flow". Jun 19, 2014 at 22:59

This is an interesting question. It seems to me that it is impossible to say 100 per cent from the information obtained from an EEG if there is a flow state or not. However, it is possible to identify concepts that are closely related to this state. For example, the identification of brain activity that is linked to positive emotions could be associated with enjoyment, which is a dimension of flow. Likewise, high brain activity could also be identified with task concentration, which is another dimension of flow in line with some authors. Also, an important factor mentioned in the article below is the fact that the consciousness of the flow state is also related to one's own experience of flow. That is, the greater the experience of flow, the greater the consciousness. On this basis, therefore, the increased brain activity identified in the sections of the brain related to the individual's consciousness can be used as indicators of the mental flow state.

Further reading: https://doi.org/10.1108/INTR-08-2020-0482

• As previously, it is not clear to me how the referenced paper supports any of the claims in this answer - please elaborate. Jan 8 at 19:08
• I have developed more the answer, to make clear it Jan 10 at 11:27