1. Computational and Systems Biology
  2. Neuroscience
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Statistical context dictates the relationship between feedback-related EEG signals and learning

  1. Matthew R Nassar  Is a corresponding author
  2. Rasmus Bruckner
  3. Michael J Frank
  1. Brown University, United States
  2. Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Research Article
  • Cited 12
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Cite this article as: eLife 2019;8:e46975 doi: 10.7554/eLife.46975


Learning should be adjusted according to the surprise associated with observed outcomes but calibrated according to statistical context. For example, when occasional changepoints are expected, surprising outcomes should be weighted heavily to speed learning. In contrast, when uninformative outliers are expected to occur occasionally, surprising outcomes should be less influential. Here we dissociate surprising outcomes from the degree to which they demand learning using a predictive inference task and computational modeling. We show that the P300, a stimulus-locked electrophysiological response previously associated with adjustments in learning behavior, does so conditionally on the source of surprise. Larger P300 signals predicted greater learning in a changing context, but less learning in a context where surprise was indicative of a one-off outlier (oddball). Our results suggest that the P300 provides a surprise signal that is interpreted by downstream learning processes differentially according to statistical context in order to appropriately calibrate learning across complex environments.

Data availability

All analysis code has been made available on GitHub (https://github.com/learning-memory-and-decision-lab/NassarBrucknerFrank_eLife_2019.git). All behavioral and EEG data has been made available on Dryad (doi:10.5061/dryad.570pf8n).

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Matthew R Nassar

    Robert J and Nancy D Carney Institute for Brain Science, Brown University, Providence, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-5397-535X
  2. Rasmus Bruckner

    Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-3033-6299
  3. Michael J Frank

    Robert J and Nancy D Carney Institute for Brain Science, Brown University, Providence, United States
    Competing interests
    Michael J Frank, Senior editor, eLife.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-8451-0523


National Institute of Mental Health (F32MH102009)

  • Matthew R Nassar

National Institute on Aging (K99AG054732)

  • Matthew R Nassar

National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH080066-01)

  • Michael J Frank

National Science Foundation (1460604)

  • Michael J Frank

German Academic Exchange Service London (Promos travel grant)

  • Rasmus Bruckner

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: Informed consent was obtained from each participant in the study and all procedures were performed in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. All procedures were approved by the Brown University Institutional Review Board (Brown University Federal Wide Assurance #00004460).

Reviewing Editor

  1. Tobias H Donner, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany

Publication history

  1. Received: March 19, 2019
  2. Accepted: August 12, 2019
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: August 21, 2019 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: August 30, 2019 (version 2)


© 2019, Nassar et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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