What’s To be “In The Flow”?

“I’m in the flow” is a common expression we have all said at one point or another. Although used casually, it represents an autotelic experience where action and awareness converge. In other words, being in the flow is when there is a high focus on a task yet little attention paid to either time or self.  Growing evidence has shown that virtual reality (VR) could help induce the flow state due to its advanced technology and capacity to promote the sense of both immersion and presence. 

In today’s post, we explore the different aspects surrounding the flow state within the context of VR technology and psychology. 

How do we understand “flow”?

Flow is a state in which we become completely immersed in activities so much so, that many other realities outside of ourselves are “forgotten.” We use the word “forgotten” loosely, though. These realities are happening in parallel; however, our interest in specific actions has reached such a high that we are unaware of whatever may be occurring simultaneously–not even the passing of time! 

To understand flow in its simplest form, we need only think of everyday moments like reading a captivating book or playing an intense video game. We may believe that only a few minutes have passed since we took up the activity, but it could not be further from the truth. An hour may have just escaped us and missed calls could have blanketed our mobiles even though our devices were buzzing. 

As we just highlighted, what makes flow particularly unique is the transformation of time and the presence of preconditions of flow. Experiential time replaces the metaphorical long and short hands of a clock, i.e., minutes and hours, while a challenge-skill balance paves the way for flow. Stated differently, unchallenging activities may induce boredom and extreme challenges, anxiety. 

How does virtual reality play a potential role in flow?

VR technology has become more formidable in enhancing the sense of presence (SoP) and immersion (SoI). While the latter aims to engage the user through a well-defined and imagined environment, the former seeks to harness the environment to nurture the user’s perception that the imagined (or virtual) setting and all it includes appear real.

Interestingly, because VR boasts these characteristics, it carries the potential to induce flow. For example, psychology researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz reported how “time compression”—the perception of time going by faster—could arise during virtual reality game playing.  As the lead investigator suggests, VR in this scenario could promote less body awareness in the user while still eliciting responses such as a rapid heartbeat or other bodily rhythms.  The idea that such physiological sensations could help the brain mark the passage of time is exciting in terms of research. Moreover, it underpins the fact that when compared to a conventional screen, VR could be the decisive factor that contributes to the time compression effect and not so much the actual gameplay. 

Why is this time compression effect especially important? Well, in layperson terms, it could serve as a double-edged sword. While it could help individuals with a condition overcome an unpleasant medical treatment, it could also favor more addictive behaviors, i.e., gameplay addiction.

As more research comes to light, we will better understand the role of VR in describing flow and the perception of time. 

In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with the use of 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.