Send to

Choose Destination
Neuroimage. 2010 Sep;52(3):833-47. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.01.047. Epub 2010 Jan 25.

Attractor concretion as a mechanism for the formation of context representations.

Author information

Department of Neuroscience, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, NY 10032-2695, USA.


Complex tasks often require the memory of recent events, the knowledge about the context in which they occur, and the goals we intend to reach. All this information is stored in our mental states. Given a set of mental states, reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms predict the optimal policy that maximizes future reward. RL algorithms assign a value to each already-known state so that discovering the optimal policy reduces to selecting the action leading to the state with the highest value. But how does the brain create representations of these mental states in the first place? We propose a mechanism for the creation of mental states that contain information about the temporal statistics of the events in a particular context. We suggest that the mental states are represented by stable patterns of reverberating activity, which are attractors of the neural dynamics. These representations are built from neurons that are selective to specific combinations of external events (e.g. sensory stimuli) and pre-existent mental states. Consistent with this notion, we find that neurons in the amygdala and in orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) often exhibit this form of mixed selectivity. We propose that activating different mixed selectivity neurons in a fixed temporal order modifies synaptic connections so that conjunctions of events and mental states merge into a single pattern of reverberating activity. This process corresponds to the birth of a new, different mental state that encodes a different temporal context. The concretion process depends on temporal contiguity, i.e. on the probability that a combination of an event and mental states follows or precedes the events and states that define a certain context. The information contained in the context thereby allows an animal to assign unambiguously a value to the events that initially appeared in different situations with different meanings.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Elsevier Science Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center