The Neuroscience of the Flow State: Involvement of the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System

Dimitri van der Linden, Mattie Tops, Arnold B. Bakker

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Flow is a state of full task engagement that is accompanied with low-levels of self-referential thinking. Flow is considered highly relevant for human performance and well-being and has, therefore, been studied extensively. Yet, the neurocognitive processes of flow remain largely unclear. In the present mini-review we focus on how the brain's locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system may be involved in a range of behavioral and subjective manifestations of flow. The LC-NE system regulates decisions regarding task engagement vs. disengagement. This is done via different modes of baseline and stimulus-evoked norepinephrine release. We emphasize the theoretical and empirical overlap between the LC-NE system and flow. For both, a match between a person's skill and task challenge is important in order to induce high levels task-related attention. Moreover, psychophysiological indicators of LC-NE system activity, such as eye pupil diameter and arousal are also sensitive to flow states. Flow is related to arousal in an inverted U-shape. Similarly, in theories on the LC-NE system, task engagement is highest with intermediate levels of arousal. We argue that knowledge about the role of the LC-NE system in establishing the flow experience may help to gain fundamental knowledge of flow and can contribute to unifying various empirical findings on this topic.

Original languageEnglish
Article number645498
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 14 Apr 2021


  • flow state
  • human performance
  • locus coeruleus
  • norepinephrine
  • peak experience
  • task engagement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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