Learning arbitrary stimulus-reward associations for naturalistic stimuli involves transition from learning about features to learning about objects

Shiva Farashahi, Jane Xu, Shih Wei Wu, Alireza Soltani*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Most cognitive processes are studied using abstract or synthetic stimuli with specific features to fully control what is presented to subjects. However, recent studies have revealed enhancements of cognitive capacities (such as working memory) when processing naturalistic versus abstract stimuli. Using abstract stimuli constructed from distinct visual features (e.g., color and shape), we have recently shown that human subjects can learn multidimensional stimulus-reward associations via initially estimating reward value of individual features (feature-based learning) before gradually switching to learning about reward value of individual stimuli (object-based learning). Here, we examined whether similar strategies are adopted during learning about naturalistic stimuli that are clearly perceived as objects (instead of a combination of features) and contain both task-relevant and irrelevant features. We found that similar to learning about abstract stimuli, subjects initially adopted feature-based learning more strongly before transitioning to object-based learning. However, there were three key differences between learning about naturalistic and abstract stimuli. First, compared with abstract stimuli, the initial learning strategy was less feature-based for naturalistic stimuli. Second, subjects transitioned to object-based learning faster for naturalistic stimuli. Third, unexpectedly, subjects were more likely to adopt feature-based learning for naturalistic stimuli, both at the steady state and overall. These results suggest that despite the stronger tendency to perceive naturalistic stimuli as objects, which leads to greater likelihood of using object-based learning as the initial strategy and a faster transition to object-based learning, the influence of individual features on learning is stronger for these stimuli such that ultimately the object-based strategy is adopted less. Overall, our findings suggest that feature-based learning is a general initial strategy for learning about reward value of all types of multi-dimensional stimuli.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104425
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Curse of dimensionality
  • Naturalistic tasks
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Value-based learning


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