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Scans Reveal Unique ‘Team Flow’ Brain State In Study

The band jamming and the basketball team playing in perfect sync produce a unique brain state in participants, new research finds.

You’ve probably heard of what brain researchers call “flow” — the state the brain is in when a person is “in the zone.” Now, researchers say there’s a similar brain state shared by a group when its members get in the zone together.

“Team flow” happens when the lead guitar player, drummer, bass player and singer of your favorite band are in sync on a Saturday night as you have never heard them before. The same concept applies to basketball players when their pinpoint passes and three-point shooting lead to a rout over a hapless opponent.

Mohammad Shehata at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan headed a team of researchers that measured the brain activity of teams working together. They found that when team members, such as in sports and music bands, “get in the zone,” they produce a unique brain state and work harmoniously to surpass performance limits.

When team members are in a team flow state, they’re brain activity becomes more synchronized and they can work harmoniously to surpass performance limits. (Elizeu Dias/Unsplash)

The researchers hope their first-of-its-kind study can provide models that will help improve and predict team performance and produce team-building strategies in business, performing arts and other activities. They also plan to use the neural signatures of team flow to address panic disorders, anxiety and depression.

For the study, published in eNeuro, it was essential to reproduce flow in a lab setting while measuring and investigating how the brain processes information. The researchers measured brain activity from 10 two-person teams using electroencephalogram (EEG) readings while they played a music video game together.

In some experiments, teammates were separated by a partition to prevent them from seeing each other, allowing a solo flow state but not team flow. In other experiments the music was scrambled to make the task more difficult, preventing a flow state but allowing teamwork.

The left middle temporal cortex (green region) is uniquely activated during team flow state. The prefrontal frontal cortex (blue region) and the inferior frontal cortex (yellow region) are activated during the flow only (Flow) and team only (Team) states, respectively. During team flow, the green region causally receives more information (black arrows) from other regions and is significantly involved in higher inter-brain integrated information (green line) and higher inter-brain neural synchrony (tan wavy line). (Courtesy of Shehata et al., eNeuro 2021)

At the end of each game, participants were asked questions assessing their level of flow. The researchers invented a method to assess the neural depth of team flow and then compared the brain activity of the participants during each trial.

They found team flow’s unique brain signature: increased beta and gamma waves in the middle temporal cortex, which is linked to information processing. Teammates’ brain activity was also more synchronized.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined solo flow in the 1970s, suggesting that in a flow state, people are challenged by a task to which full attention is given. By actively making choices, they not only have control over their actions but lose self-consciousness and gain self-confidence. Group flow is noted similarly by clarity, centering, choice commitment and challenge, research showed.

Edited by Richard Pretorius and Kristen Butler