At the Heart of Optimal Reading Experiences: Cardiovascular Activity and Flow Experiences in Fiction Reading

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Birte Thissen

:classical_building: Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics

Title: **At the Heart of Optimal Reading Experiences: Cardiovascular Activity and Flow Experiences in Fiction Reading

Abstract (long version below): This experiment examined the cardiovascular underpinnings of flow experiences during reading, in which the reader becomes completely engaged with the text. A sample of 84 participants read one of three text versions of a chapter of Homer’s Odyssey that differed in terms of readability and thus cognitive challenge. Cardiovascular activity was assessed both prior to and during reading, whereas flow was assessed with a reading-specific self-report scale immediately afterwards. Results of regression analyses suggested that cardiovascular activation patterns that reflect high parasympathetic activity prior to reading serve as a catalyst for flow experiences when a cognitively challenging text is read.**


:newspaper: Long abstract

Fiction reading is a popular leisure activity associated with a variety of pleasurable experiences, including suspense, narrative transportation, and—as indicated by recent empirical studies (Thissen et al., 2018; Thissen et al., 2020) —also flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Flow experiences generally occur during complete engagement with an activity and emerge from an optimal balance between activity challenges and personal skills (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Fong et al., 2015). In the context of fiction reading, flow is theorized to be associated with an optimal balance between text-driven cognitive challenges and the reader’s capabilities in constructing an adequate mental story model from the text (Thissen et al., 2020). Considering that the reader’s inner state may modulate in how far he or she can completely and successfully engage with a text and construct the mental story model, we examined the associations between readers’ cardiovascular measures and the occurrence of flow experiences during reading under varying cognitive challenge conditions. More specifically, we tested whether a cardiovascular activation pattern that is indicative of high activity in the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with flow when reading a cognitively challenging text, since parasympathetic dominance promotes cognitive fluency (Thayer & Lane, 2009; Thayer et al. 2009). Additionally, we tested whether the occurrence of flow in itself leads to changes in cardiovascular activation during reading, meaning that cardiovascular measures could serve as objective markers for readers’ flow experiences.

Cardiovascular data were collected from 84 participants both during a relaxation baseline prior to reading and during reading. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of three versions of the same chapter from Homer’s The Odyssey. These versions were low, intermediate or high in readability with regard to their writing style, and hence in cognitive challenge posed to the reader. Immediately after reading, flow experiences were measured with the Fiction Reading Flow Scale (FRFS; Thissen et al., 2020).

Regression analyses revealed that cardiovascular activation patterns measured prior to reading that are reflective of parasympathetic dominance – i.e., an inner state associated with cognitive fluency – moderated the occurrence of flow experiences during reading: In line with the idea that flow emerges from an optimal balance between challenges and skills, this cardiovascular pattern supported subsequent flow experiences only in response to the text version of high or intermediate, but not of low cognitive challenge. Changes in cardiovascular activation during reading were, however, not sensitive to our experimental modifications and not predictive of flow experiences. Thus, we found the expected interaction effect between the reader’s inner state and the text’s cognitive challenge level in regard to the occurrence of flow experiences during reading, but did not find changes in cardiovascular activation during reading to mark flow experiences. More specifically, the interaction effect we found suggests that parasympathetic dominance is an inner state that is favorable for the subsequent emergence of flow in cognitively challenging reading situations. Since flow experiences in challenging reading situations could promote important learning opportunities, finding ways to support their emergence constitutes an important future goal for reading research.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fong, C. J., Zaleski, D. J., & Leach, J. K. (2015). The challenge–skill balance and antecedents of flow: A meta-analytic investigation. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(5), 425-446. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2014.967799

Thayer, J. F., Hansen, A. L., Saus-Rose, E., & Johnsen, B. H. (2009). Heart rate variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: The neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 141– 153. doi: 10.1007/s12160-009-9101-z

Thayer, J. F., & Lane, R. D. (2009). Claude Bernard and the heart-brain connection: Further elaboration of a model of neurovisceral integration. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 33(2), 81–88. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.08.004

Thissen, B. A. K., Menninghaus, W., & Schlotz, W. (2018). Measuring optimal reading
experiences: The Reading Flow Short Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2542. doi:

Thissen, B. A., Menninghaus, W., & Schlotz, W. (2020). The pleasures of reading fiction explained by flow, presence, identification, suspense, and cognitive involvement. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 15(4), 710–724. doi: 10.1037/aca0000367

Dear Birte,

Thank you for the presentation! I am looking forward to the panel tomorrow!

Thank you and the same goes right back for your talk!

1 Like

Hi Birte! This is a super interesting study. So am I right to conclude from your work that people who are in a somewhat relaxed state before the start of the study (as evidenced by low heart rate and high heart rate variability) were more likely to experience flow when reading medium and difficult texts? If so, that is quite an interesting finding that has some implications for a lot of our studies on flow-like states. Participating in an experiment might make some participants a bit anxious and that might hinder them from reaching the exact states we are trying to study with those experiments… :thinking:

Thank you for the talk Birte, which is very clear on the video. I want to try again with my confused (second) question I tried to ask, which relates really to the extent to which we want to valorize flow in readers. This is to some extent how your talk and abstract end: that readers who have flow-proneness as a trait are likely to enjoy stylistically challenging texts more, because they experience flow; and also (in your abstract) that flow states might enhance learning. But I wonder whether that valorization of flow is contested by some views which valorize alternative non-flow states, and so do not see flow necessarily as a good thing in reading: e.g., the Cukic-Bates (2014) view that high sympathetic activity (i.e., not flow) relates to openness to experience, and to the tendency to get chills which are also pleasurable and which of course the MPI group have extensively studied; that flow experiences involve reduced self-referential processing (Ulrich et al 2014), and I wonder if maybe this is not be a good thing if reading relates to the self?; and Chater & Lowenstein (2015), who say that flow is the antithesis not only of boredom but also of curiosity (ouch :slight_smile:). Also, we know that the DMN is active in non-flow states, and that the DMN may be important in some aspects of literary reading. (Also, worth remembering that Csikszentmihalyi did not claim that flow is inherently good.) This isn’t intended as a criticism of your paper, which is convincing and interesting in telling us how prior reader states interact with textual properties; instead my comment is intended to ask a question about how the psychology of reading relates to the ethics of reading, which has arisen a few times here.