Using Graph Theory to Uncover the Brain Network Organization Underlying Flow Experiences During a Semi-Naturalistic Behavioral Paradigm
Richard Huskey1, Shelby Wilcox1, Rene Weber2,3; 1School of Communication, The Ohio State University, 2Department of Communication, University of California Santa Barbara, 3Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California Santa Barbara
Flow experiences are characterized by a high level of intrinsic reward that emerges as a result of a balance between high-task difficulty and high-individual ability at the task (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The synchronization theory of flow offers an explanation for the neural basis of this psychological process (Weber et al., 2009). It predicts an energetically optimized brain network organization between cognitive control and reward regions under conditions of a balance between task difficulty and individual ability. While initial results provide support for the structural predictions (Klasen et al., 2012; Ulrich et al., 2016, 2013), the connectivity and energetic optimality hypothesis remain untested. Our study addresses this gap. Subjects (n=18) played an open-source, naturalistic, and high experimental control video game while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. Following a procedure that has been empirically validated in four different studies (Huskey et al., under review), we experimentally manipulated the balance between task difficulty and individual ability. Using graph theoretic analyses, we show that the balanced-difficulty condition (compared to low- or high-difficulty conditions) was associated with highest average network degree in fronto-parietal control, ventral attention, and memory networks. We also show that this condition was characterized by the highest level of global efficiency. These results provide a first ever test of synchronization theory's core predictions and suggest important insights in the way in which task-related intrinsic reward shapes brain-network organization. Moreover, these results demonstrate the utility of using naturalistic behavioral paradigms for testing core questions in cognitive neuroscience (Krakauer, et al., 2017).
Topic Area: EMOTION & SOCIAL: Emotion-cognition interactions