Cosyne: Foraging!

I think I have found my people.  The workshops after the main Cosyne meeting were smaller and more focused, and really allowed you to delve into a topic.  I spent the first day at the Neural Mechanisms of Foraging workshop and found myself a bunch of neuroecologists!

I think I’m just going to summarize a bunch of talks instead of any one individually.  I missed the first few minutes of introduction, but I got the impression that this was the first meeting of ‘neuroforagers’ to ever actually take place; Michael Platt called it a “coming out party for foraging”.  Foraging – to define it briefly – is the decision to leave a reward source to explore new options.  It’s apparently a great task for monkeys too – many basic behaviors that we train monkeys to perform can take a long time to train; teaching them to do foraging happens in a single session.  It’s totally natural which is itself a reason for why we should be studying it!

There were two recurring themes at the talks – the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the foraging center and that economics approaches aren’t doing much good.  Talk after talk recorded from the ACC or studied how ACC activity is shaped.  Just like the Basal Ganglia meeting that The Cellular Scale attended, every talk included The Dopamine Slide.  Michael Platt suggested at the end that he hoped at foraging meetings every talk would include a figure from one of his papers that I have now forgotten!  Well, I don’t do ACC so probably not for me anyway.

The other theme was the failure of economic models to explain behavior.  Talk after talk included some variant of, “we tried fitting this to a [temporal discounting/risk-preference/reinforcement-learning/optimal foraging]  model but it didn’t account for the data”.  Almost all of them said that!  The naive assumption that we should move to optimize immediate reward is, somehow, failing.  Some kind of new principle (or perhaps better model-fitting) will be needed to consistently explain actual behavior.

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