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Humans and monkeys can learn to classify perceptual information in a statistically optimal fashion if the functional groupings remain stable over many hundreds of trials, but little is known about categorization when the environment changes rapidly. Here, we used a combination of computational modeling and functional neuroimaging to understand how humans classify visual stimuli drawn from categories whose mean and variance jumped unpredictably. Models based on optimal learning (Bayesian model) and a cognitive strategy (working memory model) both explained unique variance in choice, reaction time, and brain activity. However, the working memory model was the best predictor of performance in volatile environments, whereas statistically optimal performance emerged in periods of relative stability. Bayesian and working memory models predicted decision-related activity in distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex and midbrain. These findings suggest that perceptual category judgments, like value-guided choices, may be guided by multiple controllers.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





725 - 736


Adolescent, Adult, Animals, Bayes Theorem, Brain, Brain Mapping, Choice Behavior, Computer Simulation, Environment, Haplorhini, Humans, Judgment, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Memory, Short-Term, Models, Neurological, Perception, Photic Stimulation, Reaction Time, Young Adult