It is commonplace in neuroscience to assume that if two tasks activate the same brain areas in the same way, then they are recruiting the same underlying networks. Yet computational theory has shown that the same pattern of activity can emerge from many different underlying network representations. Here we evaluated whether similarity in activation necessarily implies similarity in network architecture by comparing region-wise activation patterns and functional correlation profiles from a large sample of healthy subjects (N = 242). Participants performed two executive control tasks known to recruit nearly identical brain areas, the color-word Stroop task and the Multi-Source Interference Task (MSIT). Using a measure of instantaneous functional correlations, based on edge time series, we estimated the task-related networks that differed between incongruent and congruent conditions. We found that the two tasks were much more different in their network profiles than in their evoked activity patterns at different analytical levels, as well as for a wide range of methodological pipelines. Our results reject the notion that having the same activation patterns means two tasks engage the same underlying representations, suggesting that task representations should be independently evaluated at both node and edge (connectivity) levels.

As a dynamical system, the brain can encode information at the module (e.g., brain regions) or the network level (e.g., connections between brain regions). This means that two tasks can produce the same pattern of activation, but differ in their network profile. Here we tested this using two tasks with largely similar cognitive requirements. Despite producing nearly identical macroscopic activation patterns, the two tasks produced different functional network profiles. These findings confirm prior theoretical work that similarity in task activation does not imply the same similarity in underlying network states.

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Competing Interests

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Author notes

Handling Editor: James Shine

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