Cognitive psychologists posit several specific cognitive abilities that are measured with sets of cognitive tasks. Tasks that purportedly tap a specific underlying cognitive ability are strongly correlated with one another, whereas performances on tasks that tap different cognitive abilities are less strongly correlated. For these reasons, latent variables are often considered optimal for describing individual differences in cognitive abilities. Although latent variables cannot be directly observed, all cognitive tasks representing a specific latent ability should have a common neural underpinning. Here, we show that cognitive tasks representing one ability (i.e., either perceptual speed or fluid reasoning) had a neural activation pattern distinct from that of tasks in the other ability. One hundred six participants between the ages of 20 and 77 years were imaged in an fMRI scanner while performing six cognitive tasks, three representing each cognitive ability. Consistent with prior research, behavioral performance on these six tasks clustered into the two abilities based on their patterns of individual differences and tasks postulated to represent one ability showed higher similarity across individuals than tasks postulated to represent a different ability. This finding was extended in the current report to the spatial resemblance of the task-related activation patterns: The topographic similarity of the mean activation maps for tasks postulated to reflect the same reference ability was higher than for tasks postulated to reflect a different reference ability. Furthermore, for any task pairing, behavioral and topographic similarities of underlying activation patterns are strongly linked. These findings suggest that differences in the strengths of correlations between various cognitive tasks may be because of the degree of overlap in the neural structures that are active when the tasks are being performed. Thus, the latent variable postulated to account for correlations at a behavioral level may reflect topographic similarities in the neural activation across different brain regions.

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