Adaptive learning is structure learning in time

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2021 Sep;128:270-281. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.06.024. Epub 2021 Jun 16.


People use information flexibly. They often combine multiple sources of relevant information over time in order to inform decisions with little or no interference from intervening irrelevant sources. They adjust the degree to which they use new information over time rationally in accordance with environmental statistics and their own uncertainty. They can even use information gained in one situation to solve a problem in a very different one. Learning flexibly rests on the ability to infer the context at a given time, and therefore knowing which pieces of information to combine and which to separate. We review the psychological and neural mechanisms behind adaptive learning and structure learning to outline how people pool together relevant information, demarcate contexts, prevent interference between information collected in different contexts, and transfer information from one context to another. By examining all of these processes through the lens of optimal inference we bridge concepts from multiple fields to provide a unified multi-system view of how the brain exploits structure in time to optimize learning.

Keywords: Adaptive learning; Bayesian inference; Event segmentation; Grid code; Reversal learning; Structure learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain*
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Uncertainty