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I know that it is possible to detect "focus" with a consumer EEG with a single electrode and a reference point (ear clip), even without conductive gel, but is it possible to detect a flow state with any level of technology (whether it be professional or consumer)? Are flow states and focus synonymous? Is the mechanism of flow by it's nature undetectable by EEG?

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Cool question! All I can contribute off the top of my head is to say that flow and focus are not synonymous. Beyond task-specific concentration, flow often implies a lapse in awareness of oneself and of the passage of time. Flow is also often euphoric (arguably even a peak experience) and dependent on an optimal level of arousal. IMO, focus is a somewhat broader term. This ought to be good news though, in as much as it implies that flow experience should be a more homogeneous state of mind conducive to more reliable EEG patterns. –  Nick Stauner Jun 17 at 18:22
Note that nothing can be detected with a single electrode, as electricity only flows between two points and current exists only in reference to two points. Moreover, I do not think the question is answerable; I do not think it's likely that this task can be achieved considering even the detection of focus is wonky with a full electrode set in lab conditions, and I'm not aware of anybody who's (convincingly) tried to measure flow (though I personally would love to try!), but we can't prove it's impossible. –  jona Jun 17 at 20:36
Corrected the description of the test setup and I'll think about your comments in regards to my question being unanswerable. –  Seanny123 Jun 18 at 14:05
I think a first step would be qualifying the statement about the detection of focus via such a reduced setup. Really, if it were that simple, a bunch of extremely smart researchers I follow who've been trying to achieve just that using state of the art lab tech for decades now would in retrospect look like a bunch of idiots. However, as a greatly less optimistic question ("has anybody yet investigated the flow state with the EEG?"), I think it's quite interesting. –  jona Jun 18 at 22:37
I can fix that! (: –  Seanny123 Jun 19 at 0:43

1 Answer 1

Bearing in mind the fact that I can't prove a negative, I'm going to say "No, it's not (yet) possible".

Flow is rather loosely defined (e.g. "merging of action and awareness"), so coming up with hard measures is a challenge in and of itself -- even without bringing electrophysiology into the equasion. As a Positive Psychology concept, it belongs to the realm of "soft science" psychology, and this tends to make fuzzy things stay fuzzy. (Please note that I'm not using "soft science" pejoratively).

I think the best you can do is measure correlates of alertness and attention (e.g. look for desynchronization in the alpha band). If you come up with a very clever design, you might even be able to elicit ERP components related to conscious awareness of a stimulus of interest (e.g. P300b complex), but even that will be very difficult in non-laboratory conditions.

Alternatively, you could turn to machine learning to search for patterns associated with the conscious processing of a stimulus of interest. If you want to go that route, I'd strongly encourage you to read one of my colleagues' Ph.D dissertation. This dissertation proposes some novel approaches to pattern classification with EEG (and MEG/iEEG). Note that this problem is a much easier one (classification of non-communicative patients). That, along with the insane amount of noise you're likely to get and the need for a very inventive design, earns you a hearty "good luck" ;)

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Your perspective is very unlike what people actually doing this kind of research would be doing. You're coming from a event-related perspective (talking about ERD, ERP, stimulus processing ...). State detection typically focuses on band power, repeated patterns like spindles, and topographical/source aspects like microstates. Look at sleep research, or the people doing drowsiness detection. –  jona Jun 19 at 11:21
@jona, Much of what is in the PDF I linked to is about spectral analysis, although I admittedly should have focused on that a bit more in my answer. Your point is well-taken. Still, I'm fairly certain that what Seanny123 wants to do isn't yet possible, if only because of the loose definition of "flow". –  blz Jun 19 at 22:59

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