Mental Effort and Information-Processing Costs Are Inversely Related to Global Brain Free Energy During Visual Categorization
MetadataShow full metadata
Mental effort is a neurocognitive process that reflects the controlled expenditure of psychological information-processing resources during perception, cognition, and action. There is a practical need to operationalize and measure mental effort in order to minimize detrimental effects of mental fatigue on real-world human performance. Previous research has identified several neurocognitive indices of mental effort, but these indices are indirect measures that are also sensitive to experimental demands or general factors such as sympathetic arousal. The present study investigated a potential direct neurocognitive index of mental effort based in theories where bounded rational decision makers (realized as embodied brains) are modeled as generalized thermodynamic systems. This index is called free energy, an information-theoretic system property of the brain that reflects the difference between the brain’s current and predicted states. Theory predicts that task-related differences in a decision makers’ free energy are inversely related to information-processing costs related to task decisions. The present study tested this prediction by quantifying global brain free energy from electroencephalographic (EEG) measures of human brain function. EEG signals were recorded while participants engaged in two visual categorization tasks in which categorization decisions resulted from the allocation of different levels of mental information processing resources. A novel method was developed to quantify brain free energy from machine learning classification of EEG trials. Participant information processing resource costs were estimated via computational analysis of behavior, whereas the subjective expression of mental effort was estimated via participant ratings of mental workload. Following theoretical predictions, task-related differences in brain free energy negatively correlated with increased allocation of information processing resource costs. These brain free energy differences were smaller for the visual categorization task that required a greater versus lesser allocation of information-processing resources. Ratings of mental workload were positively correlated with information-processing resource costs, and negatively correlated with global brain free energy differences, only for the categorization task requiring the larger amount of information-processing resource costs. These findings support theoretical thermodynamic approaches to decision making and provide the first empirical evidence of a relationship between mental effort, brain free energy, and neurocognitive information-processing.