Flow proneness correlates with dorsal striatum dopamine D2 receptor binding potential

Being in a “flow state” refers to a state of enthusiasm with high but subjectively effortless attention, reduced sense of self-awareness, and control during challenging tasks that match in difficulty the competence level of a person. In many tasks such as competitive sports and work, flow state is often sought to improve performance. The neural basis of the phenomenon of flow has been a topic of speculation, however, there are lines of research suggesting links between dopamine system and flow state, for example, higher availability of striatal dopamine D2 receptors has been linked with decreased impulsivity and poor impulse control has, in turn, been suggested to make it difficult for one to enter and maintain a flow state.

In their recent study, de Manzano et al. (2012) measured how prone a group of 25 healthy volunteers were to flow experiences at work, household maintenance, and leisure time using the so-called Swedish Flow Proneness Questionnaire. In this questionnaire, there are several questions (for example “When you do something at work, how often does it happen that you feel completely concentrated?” that subjects are to score on a five-point Likert scale from “never” to “every day or almost every day”). One year prior to administration of this questionnaire, the same subjects had undergone positron emission tomography measurement of striatal dopamine D2 receptor binding potential with radioligand [11C]raclopride.

The authors observed a positive correlation between striatal D2 receptor binding potential and scores of the Flow Proneness Questionnaire. Further analyses focusing on subregions of the striatum showed that this correlation specifically involved dorsal striatum (i.e., caudate nucleus and putamen). These findings are highly interesting and provide the first demonstration that the degree a person is prone to experience flow states correlates with inter-individual differences in brain biochemistry. Based on these findings, the authors suggest that flow proneness might be related to higher impulse control due to higher dopamine D2 receptor binding potential making it easier to enter and maintain flow states. Overall, this study provides a highly interesting and important pioneering finding on the neural basis of flow states that clearly warrants further research.

Reference: de Manzano Ö, Cervenka S, Jucaite A, Hellenäs O, Farde L, Ullén F. Individual differences in the proneness to have flow experiences are linked to dopamine D2-receptor availability in the dorsal striatum. Neuroimage (2012) e-publication ahead of print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.072

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