Doctor of Philosophy
Ontario Tech University
Owen, Adrian M.
While different cognitive abilities mature, the conscious experiences of children likely become richer and more elaborate. A challenge in investigating relationships between cognitive development and real-world experiences is having measures that assess naturalistic processing. Movie watching offers a solution, since following the plot of a film requires cognitive processes that are similar to real-world experiences. When different adults watch the same film, their brain activity begins to align (known as neural synchrony). The strength of this alignment has been shown to reflect the degree to which different individuals are having a similar experience of the movie. While this phenomenon has been established in adults, much less is known about the neural mechanisms supporting naturalistic processing in children and adolescents. The current thesis investigated the neural correlates of movie watching across late childhood and early adolescence. In Chapter 2, I found that autistic children showed more variable brain responses in regions associated with social cognition when watching a movie compared to children without autism. In Chapter 3, I found that adolescents (ages 11-15) with higher cognitive scores showed greater neural synchrony during movie watching in brain regions associated with social processing and executive functions compared to those with below average cognitive scores. This pattern was not evident in children (ages 7-11) who differed in their cognitive scores. In Chapter 4, I found that although the spatial topographies of children’s functional brain networks were nearly indistinguishable during movie watching and rest, these two states differed in the degree of neural synchrony that was present within much of the brain. That is, movies led to significantly more neural synchrony compared to rest, except for in parts of the prefrontal cortex. Taken together, these results suggest that 1) autistic children have more distinct experiences when processing naturalistic stimuli compared to those without autism, 2) adolescents with higher cognitive scores have more similar experiences with each other when watching a movie compared to those with lower scores, and 3) although children’s brain networks during movie watching and rest have a similar functional architecture, processing a film leads to neural synchrony, whereas resting state does not.
Summary for Lay Audience
When different adults watch the same movie, their brains synchronize; that is, their brain activity correlates to others’ brain activity. Previous work suggests that the presence of neural synchrony is evidence that different people are having a similar experience of the movie they are watching. Much less is known about how children’s brains respond to movies. For instance, do they synchronize with other children? If so, what are the factors that predict whether a child will synchronize with their peers while watching a movie? In this thesis, I aimed to gain a better understanding of whether social and cognitive abilities are associated with neural synchrony during development. First, I found that autistic children show less typical neural responses when watching a movie in brain regions associated with social abilities compared to those without autism. This suggests that autistic children have more distinct experiences when processing naturalistic stimuli compared to those without autism. Second, I found that cognitive ability is predictive of neural synchrony in adolescents. That is, those with higher cognitive scores showed greater synchrony while they watched a movie compared to those with lower scores in several regions of the brain that are associated with plot following. This suggests that adolescents with more mature intellectual abilities have more similar experiences when watching a movie compared to those with poorer cognitive abilities. However, I did not find that individual differences in cognitive scores was predictive of neural synchrony in children. Lastly, I found that the functional architecture of children’s brains while they watched a movie was highly comparable to when they were at rest. However, I found that these two states differed in the degree of neural synchrony present within much of the brain. Movies led to significantly more neural synchrony compared to rest, except for in parts of the prefrontal cortex. Overall, these findings contribute to our understanding of how the developing brain responds to naturalistic experiences and provide evidence that differences in clinical and cognitive features are associated with the degree to which children and adolescents synchronize with each other during movie watching.
Lyons, Kathleen M., "Examining the Relationships Between Socio-cognitive Factors and Neural Synchrony During Movie Watching Across Development" (2022). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 8812.
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