Gordon CL, Shea TM, Noelle DC, Balasubramaniam R. Affordance compatibility effect for word learning in virtual reality. Cognitive Science. 2019;43(6).

Rich sensorimotor interaction facilitates language learning and is presumed to ground conceptual representations. Yet empirical support for early stages of embodied word learning is currently lacking. Finding evidence that sensorimotor interaction shapes learned linguistic representations would provide crucial support for embodied language theories. We developed a gamified word learning experiment in virtual reality in which participants learned the names of six novel objects by grasping and manipulating objects with either their left or right hand. Participants then completed a word-color match task in which they were tested on the same six words and objects. Participants were faster to respond to stimuli in the match task when the response hand was compatible with the hand used to interact with the named object, an effect we refer to as affordance compatibility. In two follow up experiments, we found that merely observing virtual hands interact with the objects was sufficient to acquire a smaller affordance compatibility effect, and we found that the compatibility effect was driven primarily by responses with a compatible hand and not by responses in a compatible spatial location. Our results support theoretical views of language which ground word representations in sensorimotor experiences, and they suggest promising future routes to explore the sensorimotor foundations of higher cognition through immersive virtual experiments.


Kyrilov A, Noelle DC. Do students need detailed feedback on programming exercises and can automated assessment systems provide it?. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges. 2016;31(4).

This paper examines the degree to which binary instant feedback on computer programming exercises, provided by an Automated Assessment (AA) system, benefits students. It also offers an approach to providing improved feedback. Student behavior in an undergraduate computer science class was studied. Students were assigned exercises requiring the generation of programs that met given specifications. We employed an AA system that evaluated the correctness of student code by executing it on a set of test cases. Students promptly received binary (“Correct”/”Incorrect”) feedback, and they could repeatedly resubmit solutions in response. We found that more than half of the students failed to achieve correct solutions within a reasonable time. A small group of students were also found to have plagiarized solutions. This result led us to investigate ways in which AA systems for programming exercises might provide more rich and detailed feedback. We propose the development of clustering algorithms that group solutions based on how similarly incorrect they are. For the exercises we considered, there were, on average, 64 incorrect submissions, but there were only 8-10 distinct logical errors. This means that, if all incorrect submissions were automatically grouped into 8-10 clusters, a human instructor would only have to produce detailed feedback once for each cluster. That feedback could then be automatically delivered in response to each submission that fell within that cluster. We provide evidence that such an approach would result in substantial labor savings, while providing instant detailed feedback to students.


Persons with autism regularly exhibit executive dysfunction (ED), including problems with deliberate goal-directed behavior, planning, and flexible responding in changing environments. Indeed, this array of deficits is sufficiently prominent to have prompted a theory that executive dysfunction is at the heart of these disorders. A more detailed examination of these behaviors reveals, however, that some aspects of executive function remain developmentaly appropriate. In particular, while people with autism often have difficulty with tasks requiring cognitive flexibility, their fundamental cognitive control capabilities, such as those involved in inhibiting an inappropriate but relatively automatic response, show no significant impairment on many tasks. In this article, an existing computational model of the prefrontal cortex and its role in executive control is shown to explain this dichotomous pattern of behavior by positing abnormalities in the dopamine-based modulation of frontal systems in individuals with autism. This model offers excellent qualitative and quantitative fits to performance on standard tests of cognitive control and cognitive flexibility in this clinical population. By simulating the development of the prefrontal cortex, the computational model also offers a potential explanation for an observed lack of executive dysfunction early in life.

St. Clair WB, Noelle DC. Implications of polychronous neuronal groups for the continuity of mind. Cognitive Processing. 2015.

Is conceptual space continuous? The answer to this question depends on how concepts are represented in the brain. Vector space representations, which ground conceptual states in the instantaneous firing rates of neurons, have successfully captured cognitive dynamics in a broad range of domains. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that conceptual information is encoded in spatiotemporal patterns of neural spikes, sometimes called polychronous neuronal groups (PNGs). The use of PNGs to represent conceptual states, rather than employing a continuous vector space, introduces new challenges, including issues of temporally extended representations, meaning through symbol grounding, compositionality, and representational similarity. In this article, we explore how PNGs support discontinuous transitions between concepts. While the continuous dynamics of vector space approaches require such transitions to activate intermediate and blended concepts, PNGs offer the means to change the activation of concepts discretely, introducing a form of conceptual dynamics unavailable to vector space models.


Kriete T, Noelle DC, Cohen JD, O’Reilly RC. Indirection and symbol-like processing in the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2013;110(41):16390–16395.

The ability to flexibly, rapidly, and accurately perform novel tasks is a hallmark of human behavior. In our everyday lives we are often faced with arbitrary instructions that we must understand and follow, and we are able to do so with remarkable ease. It has frequently been argued that this ability relies on symbol processing, which depends critically on the ability to represent variables and bind them to arbitrary values. Whereas symbol processing is a fundamental feature of all computer systems, it remains a mystery whether and how this ability is carried out by the brain. Here, we provide an example of how the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex/basal ganglia working memory system can support variable binding, through a form of indirection (akin to a pointer in computer science). We show how indirection enables the system to flexibly generalize its behavior substantially beyond its direct experience (i.e., systematicity). We argue that this provides a biologically plausible mechanism that approximates a key component of symbol processing, exhibiting both the flexibility, but also some of the limitations, that are associated with this ability in humans.


Gupta A, Vig L, Noelle DC. A neurocomputational approach to automaticity in motor skill learning. Biologically Inspired Cognitive Architectures. 2012;2:1–12.

Cognitive agents physically interacting with the world can best adapt to their task environments if they are able to learn motor skills from experience. Many cognitive architectures have focused on a single learning mechanism to accomplish such adaptation. Behavioral studies with humans, however, have shown that the acquisition of a motor skill generally occurs in two stages. In the initial stage, acquisition is performed via attention-demanding neural processes, producing a high cognitive load. This is followed by more fluent automatic processing, requiring less deliberation. Neuroscientific studies have since identified two relevant interacting neural systems, suggesting that the acquisition of a motor skill involves a transition from heavy depen- dence on a system involving cognitive control to only weak dependence on such a system. This cognitive control system, which includes the prefrontal cortex, is thought to be responsible for acquiring and manipulating declarative representations of skills. This frontal system is seen as modulating processing in a more automatic neural pathway, which develops procedural repre- sentations over time. In this paper, we propose a biologically plausible computational model of motor skill automaticity. This model offers a neurocomputational account of the translation of declarative into procedural knowledge during learning. In support of the model, we review some previously reported experimental results, and we demonstrate, through simulation, how the model provides a parsimonious explanation for these results. The model is seen as exemplifying a novel approach to motor skill learning in artificial agents.

Noelle DC. On the neural basis of rule-guided behavior. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience. 2012;11(4):453–475.

Human behavior emerges from a complex dynamic interaction between graded and context-sensitive neural processes, the biomechanics of our bodies, and the vicissitudes of our environments. These coupled processes bear little resemblance to the iterated application of simple symbolic rules. Still, there are circumstances under which our behavior appears to be guided by explicit mental rules. A prototypical case is when succinct verbal instructions are communicated and are promptly followed by another. How does the brain support such rule-guided behavior? How are explicit rules represented in the brain? How are rule representations shaped by experience? What neural processes form the foundation of our ability to systematically represent and apply rules from the vast range of possible rules? This article reviews a line of research that has sought a computational cognitive neuroscience account of rule-guided behavior in terms of the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and related brain systems.

Kello CT, Rodny J, Warlaumont AS, Noelle DC. Plasticity, learning, and complexity in spiking networks. Critical Reviews in Biomedical Engineering. 2012;40(6):501–518.

Complexity is widespread in neuronal spike trains and propagation of spike activity, in that variations in measurements of neural activity are irregular, heterogeneous, non-stationary, transient, and scale-free. There are numerous possible reasons for this complexity, and numerous possible consequences for neural and behavioral function. The present review is focused on relationships among neural plasticity, learning, and complex spike dynamics in animal nervous systems, including those of humans. The literature on complex spike dynamics and mechanisms of synaptic plasticity are reviewed for the purpose of considering the roles that each might play for the other. That is, the roles of complex spike dynamics in learning and regulatory functions are considered, as well as the roles of learning and regulatory functions in generating complex spike dynamics. Experimental and computational studies from a range of disciplines and perspectives are discussed, and it is concluded that cognitive science and neuroscience have much to gain from investigating the adaptive aspects of complex spike dynamics for neural and cognitive function.


Kriete T, Noelle DC. Generalisation benefits of output gating in a model of prefrontal cortex. Connection Science. 2011;23(2):119–129.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a central role in flexible cognitive control, including the suppression of habitual responding in favour of situation-appropriate behaviours that can be quite novel. PFC provides a kind of working memory, maintaining the rules, goals, and/or actions that are to control behaviour in the current context. For flexible control, these PFC representations must be sufficiently componential to support systematic generalisation to novel situations. The anatomical structure of PFC can be seen as implementing a componential ‘slot-filler’ structure, with different components encoded over isolated pools of neurons. Previous PFC models have highlighted the importance of a dynamic gating mechanism to selectively update individual ‘slot’ contents. In this article, we present simulation results that suggest that systematic generalisation also requires an ‘output gating’ mechanism that limits the influence of PFC on more posterior brain areas to reflect a small number of representational components at any one time.

Gupta A, Vig L, Noelle DC. A dual association model for the extinction of animal conditioning. Neurocomputing. 2011;74(17):3531–3542.

Reversal of synaptic plasticity has been the prevalent theory for extinction of animal conditioning. Phenomena like faster reacquisition after extinction are explained via residual synaptic plasticity in the relevant neural circuits. However, this account cannot explain many recent behavioral findings. This includes phenomena like savings in extinction, reinstatement, spontaneous recovery and renewal. These phenomena point to the possibility that extinction is not a mere reversal of the associations formed during acquisition. It instead involves the superimposition of some separate decremental process that works to inhibit the previously learned responses. We have explored this dual-pathway account using a neurocomputational model of conditioning. In our model, associations related to acquisition and extinction are maintained side by side as a result of the interaction between general neural learning processes and the presence of lateral inhibition between neurons. The model captures most of the relevant behavioral phenomena that prompted the hypothesis of separate acquisition and extinction pathways. It also shows how seemingly complex behavior can emerge out of relatively simple underlying neural mechanisms.