Rule activation and ventromedial prefrontal engagement support accurate stopping in self-paced learning

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Abstract

When weighing evidence for a decision, individuals are continually faced with the choice of whether to gather more information or act on what has already been learned. The present experiment employed a self-paced category learning task and fMRI to examine the neural mechanisms underlying stopping of information search and how they contribute to choice accuracy. Participants learned to classify triads of face, object, and scene cues into one of two categories using a rule based on one of the stimulus dimensions. After each trial, participants were given the option to explicitly solve the rule or continue learning. Representational similarity analysis (RSA) was used to examine activation of rule-relevant information on trials leading up to a decision to solve the rule. We found that activation of rule-relevant information increased leading up to participants' stopping decisions. Stopping was associated with widespread activation that included medial prefrontal cortex and visual association areas. Engagement of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) was associated with accurate stopping, and activation in this region was functionally coupled with signal in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). Results suggest that activating rule information when deciding whether to stop an information search increases choice accuracy, and that the response profile of vmPFC during such decisions may provide an index of effective learning.

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