Getting into a “Flow” state: a systematic review of flow experience in neurological diseases

Beatrice Ottiger, Erwin van Wegen, Katja Keller, Tobias Nef, Thomas Nyffeler, Gert Kwakkel, Tim Vanbellingen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Flow is a subjective psychological state that people report when they are fully involved in an activity to the point of forgetting time and their surrounding except the activity itself. Being in flow during physical/cognitive rehabilitation may have a considerable impact on functional outcome, especially when patients with neurological diseases engage in exercises using robotics, virtual/augmented reality, or serious games on tablets/computer. When developing new therapy games, measuring flow experience can indicate whether the game motivates one to train. The purpose of this study was to identify and systematically review current literature on flow experience assessed in patients with stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, we critically appraised, compared and summarized the measurement properties of self-reported flow questionnaires used in neurorehabilitation setting. Design: A systematic review using PRISMA and COSMIN guidelines. Methods: MEDLINE Ovid, EMBASE Ovid, CINAHL EBSCO, SCOPUS were searched. Inclusion criteria were (1) peer-reviewed studies that (2) focused on the investigation of flow experience in (3) patients with neurological diseases (i.e., stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis and/or Parkinson’s disease). A qualitative data synthesis was performed to present the measurement properties of the used flow questionnaires. Results: Ten studies out of 911 records met the inclusion criteria. Seven studies measured flow in the context of serious games in patients with stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Three studies assessed flow in other activities than gaming (song-writing intervention and activities of daily living). Six different flow questionnaires were used, all of which were originally validated in healthy people. None of the studies presented psychometric data in their respective research population. Conclusion: The present review indicates that flow experience is increasingly measured in the physical/cognitive rehabilitation setting in patients with neurological diseases. However, psychometric properties of used flow questionnaires are lacking. For exergame developers working in the field of physical/cognitive rehabilitation in patients with neurological diseases, a valid flow questionnaire can help to further optimize the content of the games so that optimal engagement can occur during the gameplay. Whether flow experiences can ultimately have positive effects on physical/cognitive parameters needs further study.
Original languageEnglish
Article number65
Pages (from-to)65
JournalJournal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021

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