Severin Berger, Christian K. Machens
Higher-order brain areas such as the frontal cortices are considered essential for the flexible solution of tasks. However, the precise computational role of these areas is still debated. Indeed, even for the simplest of tasks, we cannot really explain how the measured brain activity, which evolves over time in complicated ways, relates to the task structure. Here, we follow a normative approach, based on integrating the principle of efficient coding with the framework of Markov decision processes (MDP). More specifically, we focus on MDPs whose state is based on action-observation histories, and we show how to compress the state space such that unnecessary redundancy is eliminated, while task-relevant information is preserved. We show that the efficiency of a state space representation depends on the (long-term) behavioural goal of the agent, and we distinguish between model-based and habitual agents. We apply our approach to simple tasks that require short-term memory, and we show that the efficient state space representations reproduce the key dynamical features of recorded neural activity in frontal areas (such as ramping, sequentiality, persistence). If we additionally assume that neural systems are subject to accuracy-cost tradeoffs, we find a surprising match to neural data on a population level.