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Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2013 Mar;13(1):1-22. doi: 10.3758/s13415-012-0125-7.

Rapid instructed task learning: a new window into the human brain's unique capacity for flexible cognitive control.

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


The human ability to flexibly adapt to novel circumstances is extraordinary. Perhaps the most illustrative, yet underappreciated, form of this cognitive flexibility is rapid instructed task learning (RITL)--the ability to rapidly reconfigure our minds to perform new tasks from instructions. This ability is important for everyday life (e.g., learning to use new technologies) and is used to instruct participants in nearly every study of human cognition. We review the development of RITL as a circumscribed domain of cognitive neuroscience investigation, culminating in recent demonstrations that RITL is implemented via brain circuits centered on lateral prefrontal cortex. We then build on this and the recent discovery of compositional representations within lateral prefrontal cortex to develop an integrative theory of cognitive flexibility and cognitive control that identifies mechanisms that may enable RITL within the human brain. The insights gained from this new theoretical account have important implications for further developments and applications of RITL research.

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