Flow states and their correlation with mood
In the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as a state of deep engagement during activities with specific goals and immediate feedback. Effortless tasks, a sense of control and a loss of the sense of time also characterize this state.
To understand flow, it is important to focus on the balance between boredom and anxiety.
Low challenging tasks against a person’s skills leads to boredom. Conversely, anxiety befalls those in whom the level of skills required is too high. Yet, as skills improve, there is a pursuit of challenging tasks to keep experiencing flow, i.e., a well-skilled player will seek to compete against more highly-skilled rivals.
An association between the state of flow and high performance and competence is present. Frustration is related to excessively demanding tasks while overly simple duties lead to a decrease in concentration. For this reason, flow appears as an optimal state.
Depression, anxiety and substance addictions are characterized by hyper-awareness of time Non and of the self. Flow states find their basis in a perceived loss of time and sense of self to be considered as “enjoyment” or “fun”. Through the cause and generation of flow states, a possible change in the perception of time results in people affected by one of these psychopathologies.
Inducing flow states to reduce psychopathological symptoms: The VirtualTimes project
VirtualTimes is a research project funded by the European Union in the framework of Horizon 2020 Program. It aims to change distorsions of the sense of time caused by psychopathological conditions such as depression by inducing flow states with the use of video games. Video games are highly effective tools to create a flow state, given that they deliver clear goals and require specific skills.
In the VirtualTimes project, 100 participants played Thumper, a rhythm game wherein players pressed buttons in sync with animations and soundtrack. Players had to react fast to obstacles and other elements to collect points and lessen the likelihood of damage.
Participants are divided into two groups: 50 with Virtual Reality (3D) and the remaining half on a computer screen (2D). They played for 25 minutes.
Those who played with VR had better performance and a more vivid feeling of being physically “there” (sense of presence) than the group playing 2D. Regardless of the group, Thumper induced flow to result in the following observation: the more the players believed to be in a flow state, the faster they perceived time passing. Similarly, an association between increased flow state and stronger performance was present.
The VirtualTimes project is still in progress. Further results are needed to see if subjects with anxiety and depression who play Thumper might experience a reduction and improvement in mood symptoms via the induction of flow states.
In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with VR gaming. The experience of time can be distorted due to certain psychopathological conditions. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to provide individuals with opportunities to re-experience and normalize a variant and distorted sense of time.
Marc Wittmann. (2021). Time Speeds Up in Flow States When Playing Video Games. Psychology Today.
Hans Rutrecht, Marc Wittmann, Shiva Khoshnoud, and Federico Alvarez Igarzábal. (2021). Time Speeds Up During Flow States: A Study in Virtual Reality with the Video Game Thumper. Timing & Time Perception. Brill.