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KrieteNoelleCohenEtAl13 Kriete T., Noelle, D.C., Cohen, J.D., & O'Reilly, R.C. (2013). Indirection and symbol-like processing in the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA), 110, 16390-16395 KrieteNoelleCohenEtAl13.pdf Supp: KrieteNoelleCohenEtAl13supp (Web)
Abstract: The ability to flexibly, rapidly, and accurately perform novel tasks is a hallmark of human behavior. In our everyday lives we are often faced with arbitrary instructions that we must understand and follow, and we are able to do so with remarkable ease. It has frequently been argued that this ability relies on symbol processing, which depends critically on the ability to represent variables and bind them to arbitrary values. Whereas symbol processing is a fundamental feature of all computer systems, it remains a mystery whether and how this ability is carried out by the brain. Here, we provide an example of how the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex/basal ganglia working memory system can support variable binding, through a form ofindirection (akin to a pointer in computer science). We show how indirection enables the system to flexibly generalize its behavior substantially beyond its direct experience (i.e., systematicity). We argue that this provides a biologically plausible mechanism that approximates a key component of symbol processing, exhibiting both the flexibility, but also some of the limitations, that are associated with this ability in humans.