Talk | Giovanni Pezzulo

17.11.2016 17:00 - 18:30

"Planning and the rat hippocampus - was Tolman right?"

Giovanni Pezzulo

Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, National Research Council, Rome, Italy

"Planning and the rat hippocampus - was Tolman right?"

About the talk

More than 50 years ago, Tolman suggested that rats are cognitive creatures that plan routes to goals (not just associate stimuli to rewards). I will discuss recent neurophysiological findings and computational modeling studies that are shedding light on the putative neuronal underpinnings of deliberate forms of (spatial) choice and planning processes. More broadly, I will argue that studying deliberative spatial choices may help us understand how animals may “detach” from immediate action-perception dynamics and reuse their internal models for higher cognition, e.g., to anticipate action consequences, plan, and solve problems. First, I will review the role of “internally generated sequences” in the rat hippocampus: structured, multi-neuron firing patterns in the network that are not confined to signaling the current state or location of the animal, but are generated on the basis of internal brain dynamics. Neurophysiological studies suggest that such sequences fulfill functions in memory consolidation, augmentation of representations, internal simulation, and recombination of acquired information. Second, I will discuss from a computational perspective how internally generated sequences might support (spatial) planning, goal-directed choices, and (Tolman's) “vicarious trial and error”, also pointing to open research questions. Finally, I will mention the broader relevance of these findings for our understanding of cognitive processing. I will discuss an embodied view of cognition, in which higher cognitive functions may be based on internal (generative) models permitting the internalization and successive re-enactment of patterns of agent-environment interactions. In this perspective, dynamical patterns of neuronal activity originally supporting situated interactions may become internalized - e.g., in the form of internally generated sequences in the hippocampus (and elsewhere) - to support “detached” cognitive processing such as flexible (“what if”) deliberation and planning.

Background papers

  • Pezzulo, G., van der Meer MA, Lansink, C. S., Pennartz, C. (2014) Internally generated sequences in learning and executing goal-directed behavior. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(12), 647–657
  • Pezzulo, G., Cisek P. (2016) Navigating the Affordance Landscape: Feedback Control as a Process Model of Behavior and Cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (6), 414-424

About the speaker

Giovanni studied philosophy in Pisa, Italy and successively received a PhD in cognitive psychology in Rome, Italy. He was researcher at the Institute for Scientific and Technological Research (ITC-IRST) in Trento and successively the Institute of Computational Linguistics (ILC-CNR) in Pisa. He is now researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies (ISTC-CNR) in Rome, Italy. He uses a combination of theoretical, computational and empirical methods to study cognitive processing in humans and other animals, and to realize robots that have similar abilities. He is currently most interested in how animals (and possibly robots) may acquire higher cognitive skills on top of their abilities for situated interaction with the environment and other animals. For more information:


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