Tracking the emergence of conceptual knowledge during human decision making

Neuron. 2009 Sep 24;63(6):889-901. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.07.030.


Concepts lie at the very heart of intelligence, providing organizing principles with which to comprehend the world. Surprisingly little, however, is understood about how we acquire and deploy concepts. Here, we show that a functionally coupled circuit involving the hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) underpins the emergence of conceptual knowledge and its effect on choice behavior. Critically, the hippocampus alone supported the efficient transfer of knowledge to a perceptually novel setting. These findings provide compelling evidence that the hippocampus supports conceptual learning through the networking of discrete memories and reveal the nature of its interaction with downstream valuation modules such as the vMPFC. Our study offers neurobiological insights into the remarkable capacity of humans to discover the conceptual structure of related experiences and use this knowledge to solve exacting decision problems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Concept Formation / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / blood supply
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Knowledge*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen