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Thinking the right thoughts

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  • UserNathaniel Daw (Princeton University)
  • ClockWednesday 02 March 2022, 16:30-18:00
  • HouseZoom meeting.

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Bio: Nathaniel Daw is Huo Professor in Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Department of Psychology. at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University and at the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, before conducting postdoctoral research at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at UCL . He served on the faculty at New York University before coming to Princeton. His research concerns computational approaches to reinforcement learning and decision making, and particularly the application of computational models in the laboratory, to the design of experiments and the analysis of behavioral and neural data.

Abstract: In many learning and decision scenarios, especially sequential tasks like mazes, it is easy to state an objective function for optimal choice, but difficult to actually compute it: for instance because this can require enumerating many possible future trajectories. This motivates a variety of simpler but less accurate approximations believed to be used as shortcuts by the brain, which then, in turn, raise questions about when a resource-efficient agent should invest in evaluating candidate actions more carefully. Previous work has used a simple all-or-nothing version of this reasoning as a framework to explain many phenomena of automaticity, habits, and compulsion in humans and animals: a rational cost-benefit account for why and when we exhibit habits and slips of action.

Here, I present a more finegrained theoretical analysis of deliberation, which attempts to address not just whether to deliberate vs. act, but which of many possible actions and trajectories to consider. Empirically, I first motivate and compare this account to nonlocal representations of spatial trajectories in the rodent place cell system, which are thought to be involved in planning. I also consider its implications, in healthy humans, for subjective feelings of boredom and cognitive fatigue, and as a potential substrate for dysfunction such as worry, rumination, and craving. Finally, I present results from a new study using magnetoencephalography in humans to measure subjective consideration of possible trajectories during a sequential learning task, and study its relationship to rational prioritization and to choice behavior.

This talk is part of the Zangwill Club series.

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