The idea that cognitive activity can be understood using nonlinear dynamics has been intensively discussed at length for the last 15 years. One of the popular points of view is that metastable states play a key role in the execution of cognitive functions. Experimental and modeling studies suggest that most of these functions are the result of transient activity of large-scale brain networks in the presence of noise. Such transients may consist of a sequential switching between different metastable cognitive states. The main problem faced when using dynamical theory to describe transient cognitive processes is the fundamental contradiction between reproducibility and flexibility of transient behavior. In this paper, we propose a theoretical description of transient cognitive dynamics based on the interaction of functionally dependent metastable cognitive states. The mathematical image of such transient activity is a stable heteroclinic channel, i.e., a set of trajectories in the vicinity of a heteroclinic skeleton that consists of saddles and unstable separatrices that connect their surroundings. We suggest a basic mathematical model, a strongly dissipative dynamical system, and formulate the conditions for the robustness and reproducibility of cognitive transients that satisfy the competing requirements for stability and flexibility. Based on this approach, we describe here an effective solution for the problem of sequential decision making, represented as a fixed time game: a player takes sequential actions in a changing noisy environment so as to maximize a cumulative reward. As we predict and verify in computer simulations, noise plays an important role in optimizing the gain.

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