Indirection and symbol-like processing in the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia

Trenton Kriete, David C. Noelle, Jonathan D. Cohen, Randall C. O'Reilly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


The ability to flexibly, rapidly, and accurately perform novel tasks is a hallmark of human behavior. In our everyday lives we are often faced with arbitrary instructions that we must understand and follow, and we are able to do so with remarkable ease. It has frequently been argued that this ability relies on symbol processing, which depends critically on the ability to represent variables and bind them to arbitrary values. Whereas symbol processing is a fundamental feature of all computer systems, it remains a mystery whether and how this ability is carried out by the brain. Here, we provide an example of how the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex/basal ganglia working memory system can support variable binding, through a form of indirection (akin to a pointer in computer science). We show how indirection enables the system to flexibly generalize its behavior substantially beyond its direct experience (i.e., systematicity). We argue that this provides a biologically plausible mechanism that approximates a key component of symbol processing, exhibiting both the flexibility, but also some of the limitations, that are associated with this ability in humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16390-16395
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number41
StatePublished - Oct 8 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Computational model
  • Generalization
  • Generativity


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