Treats during learning mask animal intelligence

In experiments with rodents, researchers show that getting rewards during learning may conceal what an animal really knows.
rat drinking from juice box

Rewards are necessary for learning, but may actually mask true knowledge, a new study with rodents and ferrets finds.

The findings show a distinction between knowledge and performance, and provide insight into how environment can affect the two.

“Most learning research focuses on how humans and other animals learn ‘content’ or knowledge. Here, we suggest that there are two parallel learning processes: one for content and one for context, or environment. If we can separate how these two pathways work, perhaps we can find ways to improve performance,” says lead author Kishore Kuchibhotla, an assistant professor in the psychological and brain sciences department at Johns Hopkins University.

“What we know at any given time can be different than what we show; the ability to access that knowledge in the right environment is what we’re interested in.”

While researchers have known that the presence of reinforcement, or reward, can change how animals behave, it’s been unclear exactly how rewards affect learning versus performance.

An example of the difference between learning and performance, Kuchibhotla explains, is the difference between a student studying and knowing the answers at home and a student demonstrating that knowledge on a test at school.

“What we know at any given time can be different than what we show; the ability to access that knowledge in the right environment is what we’re interested in,” he says.

To investigate what animals know in hopes of better understanding learning, Kuchibhotla and colleagues trained mice, rats, and ferrets on a series of tasks, and measured how accurately they performed the tasks with and without rewards.

For the first experiment, the team trained mice to lick for water through a lick tube after hearing one tone, and to not lick after hearing a different, unrewarded tone. It takes mice two weeks to learn this in the presence of the water reward.

At a time point early in learning, around days 3-5, the mice performed the task at chance levels (about 50 percent) when the lick tube/reward was present. When the team removed the lick tube entirely on these early days, however, the mice performed the task at more than 90 percent accuracy. The mice, therefore, seemed to understand the task many days before they expressed knowledge in the presence of a reward.

Researchers trained mice to lick a tube for a reward during a “target” tone and not lick during a “foil” tone. After two weeks of training, expert mice perform at high accuracy in the presence of the lick tube. (Credit: Johns Hopkins)

After only a few days of training, however, mice completed this task at chance levels in the presence of the lick tube (~50 percent). They licked to both the target and foil tones without discriminating. (Credit: Johns Hopkins)

On this early day in learning, researchers then played the same “target” and “foil” tones but without a lick tube present. Surprisingly, mice licked to the target tone and not to the foil tone with greater than 90 percent accuracy.

To confirm this finding with other tasks and animals, the team also had mice press a lever for water when they heard a certain tone; prompted rats to look for food in a cup if they heard a tone, but not if a light appeared before the tone; had rats press a lever for sugar water when a light was presented before a tone; had rats push a lever for sugar water when they heard a certain tone; and prompted ferrets to differentiate between two different sounds for water. In all experiments, the animals performed better when rewards weren’t available.

“Rewards, it seems, help improve learning incrementally, but can mask the knowledge animals have actually attained, particularly early in learning,” says Kuchibhotla.

Furthermore, the finding that all animals’ performance improved across the board without rewards, suggest that variability in learning rates may be due to differences in the animals’ sensitivity to reward context rather than differences in intelligence.

The dissociation between learning and performance, the researchers suggest, may someday help us isolate the root causes of poor performance.

While the study involved only rodents and ferrets, Kuchibhotla says it may be possible to someday help animals and humans alike better access content when they need it if researchers can identify and manipulate the right mechanisms within the brain.

For humans, this could help those with Alzheimer’s disease maintain lucidity for longer periods of time and improve testing environments for schoolchildren.

The research appears in Nature Communications.

Additional authors are from Johns Hopkins University; the New York University School of Medicine; and École Normale Supérieure-PSL Research University. Funding for this study came from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a Hirsch/Weill-Caulier Career Award, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Faculty Scholarship, the Programme Emergences of City of Paris, Agence Nationale de la Recherche, program “Investissements d’Avenir”, PSL Research University, and the National Institutes of Health training program in computation neuroscience.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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