Arguably, the most difficult part of learning is deciding what to learn about. Should I associate the positive outcome of safely completing a street-crossing with the situation ‘the car approaching the crosswalk was red’ or with ‘the approaching car was slowing down’? In this Perspective, we summarize our recent research into the computational and neural underpinnings of ‘representation learning’—how humans (and other animals) construct task representations that allow efficient learning and decision-making. We first discuss the problem of learning what to ignore when confronted with too much information, so that experience can properly generalize across situations. We then turn to the problem of augmenting perceptual information with inferred latent causes that embody unobservable task-relevant information, such as contextual knowledge. Finally, we discuss recent findings regarding the neural substrates of task representations that suggest the orbitofrontal cortex represents ‘task states’, deploying them for decision-making and learning elsewhere in the brain.
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