Converging evidence from neural, perceptual and simulated data suggests that discrete attractor states form within neural circuits through learning and development. External stimuli may bias neural activity to one attractor state or cause activity to transition between several discrete states. Evidence for such transitions, whose timing can vary across trials, is best accrued through analyses that avoid any trial-averaging of data. One such method, hidden Markov modeling, has been effective in this context, revealing state transitions in many neural circuits during many tasks. Concurrently, modeling efforts have revealed computational benefits of stimulus processing via transitions between attractor states. This review describes the current state of the field, with comments on how its perceived limitations have been addressed.
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