Cognitive control over learning: creating, clustering, and generalizing task-set structure

Psychol Rev. 2013 Jan;120(1):190-229. doi: 10.1037/a0030852.


Learning and executive functions such as task-switching share common neural substrates, notably prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. Understanding how they interact requires studying how cognitive control facilitates learning but also how learning provides the (potentially hidden) structure, such as abstract rules or task-sets, needed for cognitive control. We investigate this question from 3 complementary angles. First, we develop a new context-task-set (C-TS) model, inspired by nonparametric Bayesian methods, specifying how the learner might infer hidden structure (hierarchical rules) and decide to reuse or create new structure in novel situations. Second, we develop a neurobiologically explicit network model to assess mechanisms of such structured learning in hierarchical frontal cortex and basal ganglia circuits. We systematically explore the link between these modeling levels across task demands. We find that the network provides an approximate implementation of high-level C-TS computations, with specific neural mechanisms modulating distinct C-TS parameters. Third, this synergism yields predictions about the nature of human optimal and suboptimal choices and response times during learning and task-switching. In particular, the models suggest that participants spontaneously build task-set structure into a learning problem when not cued to do so, which predicts positive and negative transfer in subsequent generalization tests. We provide experimental evidence for these predictions and show that C-TS provides a good quantitative fit to human sequences of choices. These findings implicate a strong tendency to interactively engage cognitive control and learning, resulting in structured abstract representations that afford generalization opportunities and, thus, potentially long-term rather than short-term optimality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Generalization, Psychological
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Reinforcement, Psychology