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Front Hum Neurosci. 2011 Nov 21;5:142. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00142. eCollection 2011.

Rapid transfer of abstract rules to novel contexts in human lateral prefrontal cortex.

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Psychology Department, Washington University in St. Louis MO, USA.


Flexible, adaptive behavior is thought to rely on abstract rule representations within lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), yet it remains unclear how these representations provide such flexibility. We recently demonstrated that humans can learn complex novel tasks in seconds. Here we hypothesized that this impressive mental flexibility may be possible due to rapid transfer of practiced rule representations within LPFC to novel task contexts. We tested this hypothesis using functional MRI and multivariate pattern analysis, classifying LPFC activity patterns across 64 tasks. Classifiers trained to identify abstract rules based on practiced task activity patterns successfully generalized to novel tasks. This suggests humans can transfer practiced rule representations within LPFC to rapidly learn new tasks, facilitating cognitive performance in novel circumstances.


cognitive control; fMRI; intelligence; multivariate pattern analysis; rapid instructed task learning

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