- Research and reports
Research and reports
How pupil size can help us understand the ‘flow state’.
The research group from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, led by Dr. van den Linden and Dr. Bakker, endeavored to uncover the neurocognitive underpinnings of the flow state. The first author of the research study is a Ph.D. student Hairong Lu.
One of the brain structures potentially involved in the flow state is the Locus Coeruleus- Norepinephrine system (LC-NE). The LC is a tiny nucleus in the brain stem and is the primary source of the neuromodulator norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) to most brain regions. LC-NE activity also directly modulates the level of arousal and focus. The optimal task engagement follows an inverted-U shape of arousal (see Yerkes – Dodson relationship).
The LC-NE system directly modulates alertness-related pupil dilation, and tracking changes in pupil size is a well-established indirect method to monitor LC-NE activity. Another way to indirectly monitor LC-NE activity is through EEG measurement of the P300. The P300 is the event-related potential regulated by attention and changing task demands representing cortical activity linked to LC-NE. The researchers in this study combined pupil dilation measurements with electroencephalography (EEG) recordings while the participants were engaged in the subjective flow state.
The study results showed that flow state and two indicators of LC-NE activity (pupil size and P300 amplitude) show the same inverted-U shape relationship with increasing subjective task difficulty. The study also showed a positive linear relationship between psychological flow and pupil dilation – the pupil dilates more in the task in which an individual reports a higher feeling of flow.
These research findings illuminate how pupil dilation could be a nonintrusive way to capture the psychological flow state since this mental state cannot be interrupted in order to gather individual statements. Moreover, the study shows the involvement of LC-NE in the experience of flow state.
Lu, H., van der Linden, D. & Bakker, A.B. Changes in pupil dilation and P300 amplitude indicate the possible involvement of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system in psychological flow. Sci Rep 13, 1908 (2023).
Aston-Jones, G. & Cohen, J. D. An integrative theory of locus coeruleus-norepinephrine function: Adaptive gain and optimal performance. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 28, 403–450 (2005).
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SCIENCE WRITER, TOBII
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