Decision Making Journal Club

Brain networks for confidence weighting and hierarchical inference during probabilistic learning

Learning is difficult when the world fluctuates randomly and ceaselessly. Classical learning algorithms, such as the delta rule with constant learning rate, are not optimal. Mathematically, the optimal learning rule requires weighting prior knowledge and incoming evidence according to their respective reliabilities. This “confidence weighting” implies the maintenance of an accurate estimate of the reliability of what has been learned. Here, using fMRI and an ideal-observer analysis, we demonstrate that the brain’s learning algorithm relies on confidence weighting. While in the fMRI scanner, human adults attempted to learn the transition probabilities underlying an auditory or visual sequence, and reported their confidence in those estimates. They knew that these transition probabilities could change simultaneously at unpredicted moments, and therefore that the learning problem was inherently hierarchical. Subjective confidence reports tightly followed the predictions derived from the ideal observer. In particular, subjects managed to attach distinct levels of confidence to each learned transition probability, as required by Bayes-optimal inference. Distinct brain areas tracked the likelihood of new observations given current predictions, and the confidence in those predictions. Both signals were combined in the right inferior frontal gyrus, where they operated in agreement with the confidence-weighting model. This brain region also presented signatures of a hierarchical process that disentangles distinct sources of uncertainty. Together, our results provide evidence that the sense of confidence is an essential ingredient of probabilistic learning in the human brain, and that the right inferior frontal gyrus hosts a confidence-based statistical learning algorithm for auditory and visual sequences.