A new study published in eNeuro examined team flow and how it is a unique brain state associated with enhanced information integration and neural synchrony.
“The study is about team flow; a psychological state experienced when a team gets ‘in the zone’ during their performance,” study author Dr. Mohammad Shehata told us. “Successful teams and their coaches or supervisors strive to reach this state. We were hoping to detect brain signals specific to team flow and understand the neural mechanisms behind this state.”
As this study is the first in the neuroscience field, researchers started the study with an exploratory approach. The only theory researchers had at the start is that if the subjective experience is different, there must be a brain signal underlying that difference.
“The motivation to choose this study is its impact on society,” Dr. Shehata told us. “We wanted to provide neuroscientific evidence that team flow is not a pop-psychology phenomenon but a unique brain state that we can objectively measure. Most fields strive to achieve high-performance teamwork. The question is how much resources should be allocated to achieve high performance while keeping all team members in the zone. Now, we should strive for team flow, not just teamwork. This perspective will have many implications towards a better quality of life, including lowering the rates of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.”
Researchers measured the brain activity using EEG from ten teams composed of two players while playing a music video game together. In some trials, cardboard separated the teammates so they couldn't see each other's performance, allowing a solo flow state but preventing team flow.
“We scrambled the music in other trials, which prevented a flow state but still allowed teamwork,” Dr. Shehata told us. “The participants answered questions after each game to assess their subjective level of flow. Moreover, we invented an objective neural method to evaluate the depth of the team flow experience. Then, we compared the brain activity of the participants during each condition."
It’s important to note that there were two hurdles that researchers overcame in this study. The first was to reproduce the team flow state in a lab setting.
“We overcame this hurdle by bridging a popular video game to ensure it's engaging and a popular experimental stimulus to ensure it's controlled,” Dr. Shehata told us. “Also, we paid much attention to select well-matched teammates so that they could reach team flow.”
The second hurdle was to objectively assess the depth of the flow state beyond the traditional subjective questionnaires. Hence, researchers invited an objective neural measure to ensure the payers reached enough depth of the flow state.
“We found an apparent increase in the middle temporal cortex's beta and gamma brain waves unique to the team flow condition,” Dr. Shehata told us. “The middle temporal cortex received and integrated information from the prefrontal cortex, which is reported to play a role in solo flow, and the inferior frontal cortex, which is known to play a role in social interaction.”
Teammates also had more synchronized brain activity during the team flow state compared to the regular teamwork state.
"We were surprised by how vulnerable the team flow state was,” Dr. Shehata told us. “In our early discussions about the study design, we doubted that simple cardboard partitioning of the two players would have any neural effect. Surprisingly, that partition resulted in a massive drop in the neural signature of team flow.”
In partnership with governmental and industrial institutions, the neural signature of team flow is used to monitor and enhance team flow.
“We are trying to develop algorithms to predict which combination of teammates is more likely to reach team flow,” Dr. Shehata told us. “We should strive for team flow, not just teamwork, and we are trying to help achieve this goal based on neural models. We hope our current and future work will apply to businesses, sports, performing arts, video games, and entertainment.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com