CCN meeting | Avinash Vaidya (Brown University USA)

27-05-2021 from 16:00 to 17:00

Neural systems supporting inference and generalization of values during decision-making

Humans are capable of remarkable behavioral flexibility in novel situations. When we arrive in a foreign city, most of us can cross streets, find food and generally get by without being hit by a stray car or immediately starving to death. We do all of this with little opportunity to learn about our new environment or memorize a repertoire of highly specific stimulus-response mappings. It is generally thought that this kind of flexibility depends on an ability to build up abstract knowledge from previous experiences, that we can then leverage to generalize behaviors to new situations. However, it is not clear how the brain supports this kind of structured abstract knowledge and uses it to weigh options and make adaptive decisions. I will describe two recent fMRI experiments where we examined the neural systems involved in inferring values from structured task knowledge. In the first experiment, participants were asked to infer the values of items based on their utility for different real-world tasks. In the second, participants learned about an experimentally defined abstract task structure, and had to use this knowledge to generalize value information for options to novel contexts in absence of feedback. Across these experiments, we find evidence that the ventromedial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex represent values inferred from abstract task knowledge. In contrast, a wide fronto-parietal cortical network maintained abstract task structure during generalization. I will discuss the implications of these results for our understanding of how the brain leverages limited experience to achieve a massive behavioral flexibility.