Neural Mechanisms Behind Identification of Leptokurtic Noise and Adaptive Behavioral Response

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Large-scale human interaction through, for example, financial markets causes ceaseless random changes in outcome variability, producing frequent and salient outliers that render the outcome distribution more peaked than the Gaussian distribution, and with longer tails. Here, we study how humans cope with this evolutionary novel leptokurtic noise, focusing on the neurobiological mechanisms that allow the brain, 1) to recognize the outliers as noise and 2) to regulate the control necessary for adaptive response. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging, while participants tracked a target whose movements were affected by leptokurtic noise. After initial overreaction and insufficient subsequent correction, participants improved performance significantly. Yet, persistently long reaction times pointed to continued need for vigilance and control. We ran a contrasting treatment where outliers reflected permanent moves of the target, as in traditional mean-shift paradigms. Importantly, outliers were equally frequent and salient. There, control was superior and reaction time was faster. We present a novel reinforcement learning model that fits observed choices better than the Bayes-optimal model. Only anterior insula discriminated between the 2 types of outliers. In both treatments, outliers initially activated an extensive bottom-up attention and belief network, followed by sustained engagement of the fronto-parietal control network.

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