Realistic and complex decision tasks often allow for many possible solutions. How do we find the correct one? Introspection suggests a process of trying out solutions one after the other until success. However, such methodical serial testing may be too slow, especially in environments with noisy feedback. Alternatively, the underlying learning process may involve implicit reinforcement learning that learns about many possibilities in parallel. Here we designed a multi-dimensional probabilistic active-learning task tailored to study how people learn to solve such complex problems. Participants configured three-dimensional stimuli by selecting features for each dimension and received probabilistic reward feedback. We manipulated task complexity by changing how many feature dimensions were relevant to maximizing reward, as well as whether this information was provided to the participants. To investigate how participants learn the task, we examined models of serial hypothesis testing, feature-based reinforcement learning, and combinations of the two strategies. Model comparison revealed evidence for hypothesis testing that relies on reinforcement-learning when selecting what hypothesis to test. The extent to which participants engaged in hypothesis testing depended on the instructed task complexity: people tended to serially test hypotheses when instructed that there were fewer relevant dimensions, and relied more on gradual and parallel learning of feature values when the task was more complex. This demonstrates a strategic use of task information to balance the costs and benefits of the two methods of learning.
With the wide adoption of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) by cognitive neuroscience researchers, large volumes of brain imaging data have been accumulated in recent years. Aggregating these data to derive scientific insights often faces the challenge that fMRI data are high-dimensional, heterogeneous across people, and noisy. These challenges demand the development of computational tools that are tailored both for the neuroscience questions and for the properties of the data. We review a few recently developed algorithms in various domains of fMRI research: fMRI in naturalistic tasks, analyzing full-brain functional connectivity, pattern classification, inferring representational similarity and modeling structured residuals. These algorithms all tackle the challenges in fMRI similarly: they start by making clear statements of assumptions about neural data and existing domain knowledge, incorporate those assumptions and domain knowledge into probabilistic graphical models, and use those models to estimate properties of interest or latent structures in the data. Such approaches can avoid erroneous findings, reduce the impact of noise, better utilize known properties of the data, and better aggregate data across groups of subjects. With these successful cases, we advocate wider adoption of explicit model construction in cognitive neuroscience. Although we focus on fMRI, the principle illustrated here is generally applicable to brain data of other modalities.
The activity of neural populations in the brains of humans and animals can exhibit vastly different spatial patterns when faced with different tasks or environmental stimuli. The degrees of similarity between these neural activity patterns in response to different events are used to characterize the representational structure of cognitive states in a neural population. The dominant methods of investigating this similarity structure first estimate neural activity patterns from noisy neural imaging data using linear regression, and then examine the similarity between the estimated patterns. Here, we show that this approach introduces spurious bias structure in the resulting similarity matrix, in particular when applied to fMRI data. This problem is especially severe when the signal-to-noise ratio is low and in cases where experimental conditions cannot be fully randomized in a task. We propose Bayesian Representational Similarity Analysis (BRSA), an alternative method for computing representational similarity, in which we treat the covariance structure of neural activity patterns as a hyper-parameter in a generative model of the neural data. By marginalizing over the unknown activity patterns, we can directly estimate this covariance structure from imaging data. This method offers significant reductions in bias and allows estimation of neural representational similarity with previously unattained levels of precision at low signal-to-noise ratio, without losing the possibility of deriving an interpretable distance measure from the estimated similarity. The method is closely related to Pattern Component Model (PCM), but instead of modeling the estimated neural patterns as in PCM, BRSA models the imaging data directly and is suited for analyzing data in which the order of task conditions is not fully counterbalanced. The probabilistic framework allows for jointly analyzing data from a group of participants. The method can also simultaneously estimate a signal-to-noise ratio map that shows where the learned representational structure is supported more strongly. Both this map and the learned covariance matrix can be used as a structured prior for maximum a posteriori estimation of neural activity patterns, which can be further used for fMRI decoding. Our method therefore paves the way towards a more unified and principled analysis of neural representations underlying fMRI signals. We make our tool freely available in Brain Imaging Analysis Kit (BrainIAK).
In neuroscience, the similarity matrix of neural activity patterns in response to different sensory stimuli or under different cognitive states reflects the structure of neural representational space. Existing methods derive point estimations of neural activity patterns from noisy neural imaging data, and the similarity is calculated from these point estimations. We show that this approach translates structured noise from estimated patterns into spurious bias structure in the resulting similarity matrix, which is especially severe when signal-to-noise ratio is low and experimental conditions cannot be fully randomized in a cognitive task. We propose an alternative Bayesian framework for computing representational similarity in which we treat the covariance structure of neural activity patterns as a hyperparameter in a generative model of the neural data, and directly estimate this covariance structure from imaging data while marginalizing over the unknown activity patterns. Converting the estimated covariance structure into a correlation matrix offers a much less biased estimate of neural representational similarity. Our method can also simultaneously estimate a signal-to-noise map that informs where the learned representational structure is supported more strongly, and the learned covariance matrix can be used as a structured prior to constrain Bayesian estimation of neural activity patterns. Our code is freely available in Brain Imaging Analysis Kit (Brainiak) (https://github.com/IntelPNI/brainiak).
Although the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) has been studied intensely for decades, its precise functions have remained elusive. We recently hypothesized that the OFC contains a “cognitive map” of task space in which the current state of the task is represented, and this representation is especially critical for behavior when states are unobservable from sensory input. To test this idea, we apply pattern-classification techniques to neuroimaging data from humans performing a decision-making task with 16 states. We show that unobservable task states can be decoded from activity in OFC, and decoding accuracy is related to task performance and the occurrence of individual behavioral errors. Moreover, similarity between the neural representations of consecutive states correlates with behavioral accuracy in corresponding state transitions. These results support the idea that OFC represents a cognitive map of task space and establish the feasibility of decoding state representations in humans using non-invasive neuroimaging.
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