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The Role of Executive Function in Shaping Reinforcement Learning

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Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2021 Apr;38:66-73. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2020.10.003. Epub 2020 Nov 14.


Reinforcement learning (RL) models have advanced our understanding of how animals learn and make decisions, and how the brain supports some aspects of learning. However, the neural computations that are explained by RL algorithms fall short of explaining many sophisticated aspects of human decision making, including the generalization of learned information, one-shot learning, and the synthesis of task information in complex environments.. Instead, these aspects of instrumental behavior are assumed to be supported by the brain’s executive functions (EF). We review recent findings that highlight the importance of EF in learning. Specifically, we advance the theory that EF sets the stage for canonical RL computations in the brain, providing inputs that broaden their flexibility and applicability. Our theory has important implications for how to interpret RL computations in the brain and behavior.

PMID:35194556 | PMC:PMC8859995 | DOI:10.1016/j.cobeha.2020.10.003

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