The attention schema theory in a neural network agent: Controlling visuospatial attention using a descriptive model of attention

Andrew I. Wilterson, Michael S.A. Graziano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

In the attention schema theory (AST), the brain constructs a model of attention, the attention schema, to aid in the endogenous control of attention. Growing behavioral evidence appears to support the presence of a model of attention. However, a central question remains: does a controller of attention actually benefit by having access to an attention schema? We constructed an artificial deep Q-learning neural network agent that was trained to control a simple form of visuospatial attention, tracking a stimulus with an attention spotlight in order to solve a catch task. The agent was tested with and without access to an attention schema. In both conditions, the agent received sufficient information such that it should, theoretically, be able to learn the task. We found that with an attention schema present, the agent learned to control its attention spotlight and learned the catch task. Once the agent learned, if the attention schema was then disabled, the agent's performance was greatly reduced. If the attention schema was removed before learning began, the agent was impaired at learning. The results show how the presence of even a simple attention schema can provide a profound benefit to a controller of attention. We interpret these results as supporting the central argument of AST: the brain contains an attention schema because of its practical benefit in the endogenous control of attention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2102421118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume118
Issue number33
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 17 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

Keywords

  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Deep learning
  • Internal model
  • Machine learning

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