Brains construct internal models that support perception, prediction, and action in the external world. Individual circuits within a brain also learn internal models of the local world of input they receive, in order to facilitate efficient and robust representation. How are these internal models learned? We propose that learning is facilitated by continual switching between internally biased and externally biased modes of processing. We review computational evidence that this mode-switching can produce an error signal to drive learning. We then consider empirical evidence for the instantiation of mode-switching in diverse neural systems, ranging from subsecond fluctuations in the hippocampus to wake-sleep alternations across the whole brain. We hypothesize that these internal/external switching processes, which occur at multiple scales, can drive learning at each scale. This framework predicts that (a) slower mode-switching should be associated with learning of more temporally extended input features and (b) disruption of switching should impair the integration of new information with prior information.
Keywords: Acetylcholine; Contrastive learning; Default mode; Hippocampus; Learning; Sleep; Switching; Timescale.