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Detecting Flow Experiences in Cognitive Tasks - A Neurophysiological Approach

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The experience of flow is a unique sensation of complete task absorption and effortless action that is highlighted as a correlate of peak performances, personal and social growth, and general well-being. For organisations, higher flow frequencies, therefore, relate to a more engaged, skilled, and productive workforce. Especially as global phenomena like increasing knowledge work demand and low worker engagement are developing, organisations could strongly benefit from fostering workers’ flow experiences. However, facilitating flow represents a substantial challenge due to the variety of workers’ abilities, tasks and workplace configurations. Knowledge workers are faced with unstructured and complex tasks, that require numerous domain-specific abilities and cooperation with others. Workplaces are diversifying with boundaries disappearing between centralized and digitally-mediated workspaces. This variety means that only person-, task- and situation-independent approaches can deliver comprehensive flow support. For this reason, research on the experiences neurophysiological basis is increasingly pursued. On this basis, adaptive Neuro-Information Systems (NeuroIS) could be developed that are able to detect flow continuously (especially through wearable sensor systems), and that can provide flow-supporting mechanisms. Presently, despite these efforts, the knowledge on how to detect flow with neurophysiological measures is sparse, highly fragmented, and lacks experimental variety. On the individual level, competing propositions exist that have not been consolidated through cross-situational, and multi-sensor observation. On the group level, almost no research has been conducted to investigate neurophysiological correlates in social interactions, particularly not in digitally-mediated interactions. This dissertation addresses these gaps through the cross-situational observation of flow using wearable ECG and EEG sensor systems. In doing so, limitations in the present state of experimental flow research are addressed that refer to central shortcomings of established paradigms for the controlled elicitation of flow experiences. Specifically, two experiments are conducted with manipulations of difficulty, naturalism, autonomy, and social interaction to investigate the question of how flow elicitation can be intensified, and the experience detected more robustly across situations. These investigations are based on an extensive integration of the theoretic and empiric literature on flow neurophysiology. Altogether, the results suggest flow to be represented by moderate physiological activation and mental workload, by increased attentional task engagement and by affective neutrality. Especially EEG features indicate a diagnostic potential to separate lower from higher flow intensities by the reflection of optimal and non-optimal (individual and group) task difficulties. To catalyse, that the positive promises of fostering flow in individuals and social units, can be realised, avenues to advance flow facilitation research are outlined.
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