Publications by Year: 2015

Gershman, S. J., Norman, K. A., & Niv, Y. (2015). Discovering latent causes in reinforcement learning. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences , 5 43–50. PDFAbstract
Effective reinforcement learning hinges on having an appropriate state representation. But where does this representation come from? We argue that the brain discovers state representations by trying to infer the latent causal structure of the task at hand, and assigning each latent cause to a separate state. In this paper, we review several implications of this latent cause framework, with a focus on Pavlovian conditioning. The framework suggests that conditioning is not the acquisition of associations between cues and outcomes, but rather the acquisition of associations between latent causes and observable stimuli. A latent cause interpretation of conditioning enables us to begin answering questions that have frustrated classical theories: Why do extinguished responses sometimes return? Why do stimuli presented in compound sometimes summate and sometimes do not? Beyond conditioning, the principles of latent causal inference may provide a general theory of structure learning across cognitive domains.
Niv, Y., Langdon, A. J., & Radulescu, A. (2015). A free-choice premium in the basal ganglia. Trends in Cognitive Sciences , 19 (1), 4–5. PDFAbstract
Apparently, the act of free choice confers value: when selecting between an item that you had previously chosen and an identical item that you had been forced to take, the former is often preferred. What could be the neural underpinnings of this free-choice bias in decision making? An elegant study recently published in Neuron suggests that enhanced reward learning in the basal ganglia may be the culprit.
Daniel, R., Schuck, N. W., & Niv, Y. (2015). How to divide and conquer the world, one step at a time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 112 (10), 2929–2930. PDF
Eldar, E., & Niv, Y. (2015). Interaction between emotional state and learning underlies mood instability. Nature Communications , 6 (1), 6149. PDFAbstract
Intuitively, good and bad outcomes affect our emotional state, but whether the emotional state feeds back onto the perception of outcomes remains unknown. Here, we use behaviour and functional neuroimaging of human participants to investigate this bidirectional interaction, by comparing the evaluation of slot machines played before and after an emotion-impacting wheel-of-fortune draw. Results indicate that self-reported mood instability is associated with a positive-feedback effect of emotional state on the perception of outcomes. We then use theoretical simulations to demonstrate that such positive feedback would result in mood destabilization. Taken together, our results suggest that the interaction between emotional state and learning may play a significant role in the emergence of mood instability.
Wilson, R. C., & Niv, Y. (2015). Is Model Fitting Necessary for Model-Based fMRI? PLoS Comput Biol , 11 (6), e1004237. PDFAbstract
Model-based analysis of fMRI data is an important tool for investigating the computational role of different brain regions. With this method, theoretical models of behavior can be leveraged to find the brain structures underlying variables from specific algorithms, such as prediction errors in reinforcement learning. One potential weakness with this approach is that models often have free parameters and thus the results of the analysis may depend on how these free parameters are set. In this work we asked whether this hypothetical weakness is a problem in practice. We first developed general closed-form expressions for the relationship between results of fMRI analyses using different regressors, e.g., one corresponding to the true process underlying the measured data and one a model-derived approximation of the true generative regressor. Then, as a specific test case, we examined the sensitivity of model-based fMRI to the learning rate parameter in reinforcement learning, both in theory and in two previously-published datasets. We found that even gross errors in the learning rate lead to only minute changes in the neural results. Our findings thus suggest that precise model fitting is not always necessary for model-based fMRI. They also highlight the difficulty in using fMRI data for arbitrating between different models or model parameters. While these specific results pertain only to the effect of learning rate in simple reinforcement learning models, we provide a template for testing for effects of different parameters in other models.
Gershman, S. J., & Niv, Y. (2015). Novelty and Inductive Generalization in Human Reinforcement Learning. Topics in Cognitive Science , 7 (3), 391–415. PDFAbstract
In reinforcement learning (RL), a decision maker searching for the most rewarding option is often faced with the question: What is the value of an option that has never been tried before? One way to frame this question is as an inductive problem: How can I generalize my previous experi-ence with one set of options to a novel option? We show how hierarchical Bayesian inference can be used to solve this problem, and we describe an equivalence between the Bayesian model and temporal difference learning algorithms that have been proposed as models of RL in humans and animals. According to our view, the search for the best option is guided by abstract knowledge about the relationships between different options in an environment, resulting in greater search effi-ciency compared to traditional RL algorithms previously applied to human cognition. In two behav-ioral experiments, we test several predictions of our model, providing evidence that humans learn and exploit structured inductive knowledge to make predictions about novel options. In light of this model, we suggest a new interpretation of dopaminergic responses to novelty.
Niv, Y., Daniel, R., Geana, A., Gershman, S. J., Leong, Y. C., Radulescu, A., & Wilson, R. C. (2015). Reinforcement Learning in Multidimensional Environments Relies on Attention Mechanisms. Journal of Neuroscience , 35 (21), 8145–8157. PDFAbstract
In recent years, ideas from the computational field of reinforcement learning have revolutionized the study of learning in the brain, famously providing new, precise theories of how dopamine affects learning in the basal ganglia. However, reinforcement learning algorithms are notorious for not scaling well to multidimensional environments, as is required for real-world learning. We hypothesized that the brain naturally reduces the dimensionality of real-world problems to only those dimensions that are relevant to predicting reward, and conducted an experiment to assess by what algorithms and with what neural mechanisms this "representation learning" process is realized in humans. Our results suggest that a bilateral attentional control network comprising the intraparietal sulcus, precuneus, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in selecting what dimensions are relevant to the task at hand, effectively updating the task representation through trial and error. In this way, cortical attention mechanisms interact with learning in the basal ganglia to solve the "curse of dimensionality" in reinforcement learning.
Dunsmoor, J. E., Niv, Y., Daw, N. D., & Phelps, E. A. (2015). Rethinking Extinction. Neuron , 88 (1), 47–63. PDFAbstract
Extinction serves as the leading theoretical framework and experimental model to describe how learned behaviors diminish through absence of anticipated reinforcement. In the past decade, extinction has moved beyond the realm of associative learning theory and behavioral experimentation in animals and has become a topic of considerable interest in the neuroscience of learning, memory, and emotion. Here, we review research and theories of extinction, both as a learning process and as a behavioral technique, and consider whether traditional understandings warrant a re-examination. We discuss the neurobiology, cognitive factors, and major computational theories, and revisit the predominant view that extinction results in new learning that interferes with expression of the original memory. Additionally, we reconsider the limitations of extinction as a technique to prevent the relapse of maladaptive behavior and discuss novel approaches, informed by contemporary theoretical advances, that augment traditional extinction methods to target and potentially alter maladaptive memories.
Sharpe, M. J., Wikenheiser, A. M., Niv, Y., & Schoenbaum, G. (2015). The State of the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Neuron , 88 (6), 1075–1077. PDFAbstract
State representation is fundamental to behavior. However, identifying the true state of the world is challenging when explicit cues are ambiguous. Here, Bradfield and colleagues show that the medial OFC is critical for using associative information to discriminate ambiguous states. State representation is fundamental to behavior. However, identifying the true state of the world is challenging when explicit cues are ambiguous. Here, Bradfield and colleagues show that the medial OFC is critical for using associative information to discriminate ambiguous states.