How Brain-Heart Interactions Can Help Us Evaluate Flow States While Gaming

Previous research has demonstrated the power of video games to tap into a person’s flow state, creating a highly immersive and rewarding experience. Any gamer will attest to the immersive and captivating nature of gaming, which often leads to a heightened sense of engagement and focus. This has made games an ideal way to study flow.

Scientists are increasingly turning to neuroscience and physiological measures to better understand what happens to the body during flow states. By measuring brain-heart interactions, we may be able to quantitatively evaluate the state of flow.

New research provides clues into how interactions between the brain and heart may be linked to flow states while playing video games. These findings offer us new insights into how we can assess and measure flow through neurophysiological data.

Keep reading to learn about the latest research.

What Is Flow and Why Study It?

Flow can be defined as a state of intense focus and enjoyment. In flow, an individual is completely absorbed by the task or activity at hand and loses a sense of time. For a flow state to occur, the task must include goals, feedback, and challenges that align with an individual’s current abilities.(1)

Flow states have been linked to higher levels of mental well-being and feelings of competence. Recent research also suggests it may reduce rumination—a symptom of depression and anxiety.(2) A key characteristic of depression includes the perception that time is passing slowly.(3)

By understanding how to measure and quantify flow states, we can learn more about how to induce and sustain this state in individuals. And, we can assess whether flow can help improve symptoms of psychopathological conditions like depression.

Why Video Games Are Optimal for Studying Flow

Video games are an ideal medium for studying flow in the laboratory setting. Why?

According to Khoshnoud et al. (2022), video games offer:(1)

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Challenging tasks
  • The ability to adjust the difficulty level to fit the individual’s skill level

All these things combine to create an environment that is conducive to inducing flow. Video games have the potential to engage players deeply and can foster an environment where users feel completely immersed in the experience.

Study Using Neurophysiological Measures to Assess Flow

In a recent study by Khoshnoud et. al (2022), 43 participants were assigned a computer game to play for 25 minutes.

As part of the study, the participants were given two training sessions to learn the game and assess their preferred difficulty level. Then, they were told to pick a level that was neither too easy nor too difficult for the experiment.

To measure brain-heart interaction, the researchers used the heart-evoked potential (HEP)—the brain signals that are generated by changes in cardiac activity. The researchers also recorded participants’ EEG and cardiorespiratory data.

The study measured flow states and time perception through self-report questionnaires. To measure flow states, the participants were given a Flow Short Scale. To assess time and bodily perception, the participants were given the Subjective Time, Self, and Space questionnaire.

Research Findings

The researchers found that a more rapid heart rate was associated with higher flow scores. They also found a positive correlation between higher HEP amplitudes and higher absorption while playing the game. Lastly, high flow scores were associated with high degrees of absorption experienced during the game and less thinking about time.

Together, these results suggest that flow states induced by video games can alter time perception, through less preoccupation with time and a feeling of a faster passage of time.

Brain-Heart Interactions & Flow: Key Takeaways From the Research

The current study strengthens the current evidence that flow states can alter the perception of time and posits that brain-heart interactions may provide a reliable way to measure and quantify flow states.

This is an important step forward in understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms behind flow states—which could potentially lead to improved interventions for anxiety and depression in the future.

At Virtualtimes, we analyze and study the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state through the use of VR gaming. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to understand time perception and help improve symptoms of psychological disorders by measuring and altering the perception of time.

1. Khoshnoud, S., Alvarez Igarzábal, F., & Wittmann, M. (2022). Brain-Heart Interaction and the Experience of Flow While Playing a Video Game. Frontiers in human neuroscience16, 819834.

2. Kühn, S., Berna, F., Lüdtke, T., Gallinat, J., & Moritz, S. (2018). Fighting Depression: Action Video Game Play May Reduce Rumination and Increase Subjective and Objective Cognition in Depressed Patients. Frontiers in psychology9, 129.

3. Vogel, D. H. V., Krämer, K., Schoofs, T., Kupke, C., & Vogeley, K. (2018). Disturbed Experience of Time in Depression-Evidence from Content Analysis. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 66.