We review the abstract concept of a ‘state' – an internal representation posited by reinforcement learning theories to be used by an agent, whether animal, human or artificial, to summarize the features of the external and internal environment that are relevant for future behavior on a particular task. Armed with this summary representation, an agent can make decisions and perform actions to interact effectively with the world. Here, we review recent findings from the neurobiological and behavioral literature to ask: ‘what is a state?' with respect to the internal representations that organize learning and decision making across a range of tasks. We find that state representations include information beyond a straightforward summary of the immediate cues in the environment, providing timing or contextual information from the recent or more distant past, which allows these additional factors to influence decision making and other goal-directed behaviors in complex and perhaps unexpected ways.
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