A Neural Interpretation of Exemplar Theory

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Exemplar theory assumes that people categorize a novel object by comparing its similarity to the memory representations of all previous exemplars from each relevant category. Exemplar theory has been the most prominent cognitive theory of categorization for more than 30 years. Despite its considerable success in providing good quantitative fits to a wide variety of accuracy data, it has never had a detailed neurobiological interpretation. This article proposes a neural interpretation of exemplar theory in which category learning is mediated by synaptic plasticity at cortical-striatal synapses. In this model, categorization training does not create new memory representations, rather it alters connectivity between striatal neurons and neurons in sensory association cortex. The new model makes identical quantitative predictions as exemplar theory, yet it can account for many empirical phenomena that are either incompatible with or outside the scope of the cognitive version of exemplar theory.

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