Performance on cognitive tasks during learning is used to measure knowledge, yet it remains controversial since such testing is susceptible to contextual factors. To what extent does performance during learning depend on the testing context, rather than underlying knowledge? We trained mice, rats and ferrets on a range of tasks to examine how testing context impacts the acquisition of knowledge versus its expression. We interleaved reinforced trials with probe trials in which we omitted reinforcement. Across tasks, each animal species performed remarkably better in probe trials during learning and inter-animal variability was strikingly reduced. Reinforcement feedback is thus critical for learning-related behavioral improvements but, paradoxically masks the expression of underlying knowledge. We capture these results with a network model in which learning occurs during reinforced trials while context modulates only the read-out parameters. Probing learning by omitting reinforcement thus uncovers latent knowledge and identifies context- not “smartness”- as the major source of individual variability.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Physics and Astronomy(all)