Reading positional codes with fMRI: Problems and solutions.

22 Mar 2018

Neural mechanisms which bind items into sequences have been investigated in a large body of research in animal neurophysiology and human neuroimaging. However, a major problem in interpreting this data arises from a fact that several unrelated processes, such as memory load, sensory adaptation, and reward expectation, also change in a consistent manner as the sequence unfolds. In this paper we use computational simulations and data from two fMRI experiments to show that a host of unrelated neural processes can masquerade as sequence representations. We show that dissociating such unrelated processes from a dedicated sequence representation is an especially difficult problem for fMRI data, which is almost exclusively the modality used in human experiments. We suggest that such fMRI results must be treated with caution and in many cases the assumed neural representation might actually reflect unrelated processes.