October 24, 2016
By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
Have you ever been so engrossed in your work that you were amazed to find that hours had passed when you thought it had been only minutes? This is a critical hallmark of cognitive flow, which describes a state of being immersed in productive mental activity so that, among other features, the awareness of the passage of time is diminished (Csiksentmihalyi, 2014). If you want to understand a bit more about different kinds of flow, here’s a useful video from the Flow Centre in Australia.
We were interested in understanding the relationship between cognitive flow (as measured by a reduction in the sense of passing time), background music, and heart rhythms, so we did a fun experiment to examine these questions. We asked 17 volunteers to wear a heartbeat monitoring strap while they worked on their computer for two hours. For one of the hours, they listened to Focus@Will audio of their choice, for the other hour they listened to their own choice of music (just not Focus@Will). Every so often, at periodic intervals, I interrupted their work and asked them to respond to a questionnaire with three questions: 1) how much do you feel “in the zone”? 2) how much are you aware of time passing? and 3) how much do you feel effortlessly productive? Participants rated their answers from 0 to 100%, and answered for the two-minute period prior to my interruption.
What they didn’t know is that I was only concerned with their responses to the second question — “How much are you aware of time passing?” because a feeling of being unaware of time passing is a strong predictor of cognitive flow. Using their responses to this question, we could examine three things: 1) how cognitive flow relates to the type of background music to which they were listening, 2) how heart rhythms relate to cognitive flow, and 3) how heart rhythms relate to both flow and the type of background music experienced by participants.
So for the first question, the answer was impressive — while listening to Focus@Will, participants had, on average, less of a sense of time passing than when they listened to other music (see figure — left bar shows sense of time passing while listening to Focus@Will, right bar while listening to plain music). We interpret this difference as increased cognitive flow when listening to Focus@Will. In fact, for all but four participants, this difference was substantial — for 14 out of 17 participants, the average improvement in flow with Focus@Will was twice that of plain music.
Now onto the second question — what does cognitive flow have to do with heart rhythms? It turns out that when our participants reported that they had less of a sense of time passing (so they were experiencing flow), their heart rhythms became more regular. When this regularity was interrupted, they were more likely to be aware of time passing. This result goes along with some previous research in this area (Peifer, 2012), so we think we are looking at an effect that is relatively consistent.
Finally — how do flow, heart rhythms, and background music relate to one another? Well, if you compare the way heart rhythms are changing between when participants are listening to Focus@Will versus when listening to other music, it turns out that the changes in heart rhythms during Focus@Will listening are more similar to those during flow states than during listening to plain music. In other words, you can generally tell from a person’s reported flow state and their heart rhythms whether or not they are listening to Focus@Will. And if they are listening to Focus@Will, the heart rhythms will look more like those associated with flow!
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed and relaxing Focus Spa audio channel, one of many diverse focusing channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I study the science of consciousness, and I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and I co-authored a textbook with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, published in August 2016 by the American Psychological Association. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.