A model of naturalistic decision making in preference tests

PLoS Comput Biol. 2021 Sep 23;17(9):e1009012. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009012. eCollection 2021 Sep.


Decisions as to whether to continue with an ongoing activity or to switch to an alternative are a constant in an animal's natural world, and in particular underlie foraging behavior and performance in food preference tests. Stimuli experienced by the animal both impact the choice and are themselves impacted by the choice, in a dynamic back and forth. Here, we present model neural circuits, based on spiking neurons, in which the choice to switch away from ongoing behavior instantiates this back and forth, arising as a state transition in neural activity. We analyze two classes of circuit, which differ in whether state transitions result from a loss of hedonic input from the stimulus (an "entice to stay" model) or from aversive stimulus-input (a "repel to leave" model). In both classes of model, we find that the mean time spent sampling a stimulus decreases with increasing value of the alternative stimulus, a fact that we linked to the inclusion of depressing synapses in our model. The competitive interaction is much greater in "entice to stay" model networks, which has qualitative features of the marginal value theorem, and thereby provides a framework for optimal foraging behavior. We offer suggestions as to how our models could be discriminatively tested through the analysis of electrophysiological and behavioral data.