Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
October 2018, Vol. 30, No. 10, Pages 1422-1432
© 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Tortoise and the Hare: Interactions between Reinforcement Learning and Working Memory
Article PDF (1.4 MB)
Learning to make rewarding choices in response to stimuli depends on a slow but steady process, reinforcement learning, and a fast and flexible, but capacity-limited process, working memory. Using both systems in parallel, with their contributions weighted based on performance, should allow us to leverage the best of each system: rapid early learning, supplemented by long-term robust acquisition. However, this assumes that using one process does not interfere with the other. We use computational modeling to investigate the interactions between the two processes in a behavioral experiment and show that working memory interferes with reinforcement learning. Previous research showed that neural representations of reward prediction errors, a key marker of reinforcement learning, were blunted when working memory was used for learning. We thus predicted that arbitrating in favor of working memory to learn faster in simple problems would weaken the reinforcement learning process. We tested this by measuring performance in a delayed testing phase where the use of working memory was impossible, and thus participant choices depended on reinforcement learning. Counterintuitively, but confirming our predictions, we observed that associations learned most easily were retained worse than associations learned slower: Using working memory to learn quickly came at the cost of long-term retention. Computational modeling confirmed that this could only be accounted for by working memory interference in reinforcement learning computations. These results further our understanding of how multiple systems contribute in parallel to human learning and may have important applications for education and computational psychiatry.