Organizing memories for generalization in complementary learning systems
Published in Brain/Neurology, Memory.
Memorization and generalization are complementary cognitive processes that jointly promote adaptive behavior. For example, animals should memorize safe routes to specific water sources and generalize from these memories to discover environmental features that predict new ones. These functions depend on systems consolidation mechanisms that construct neocortical memory traces from hippocampal precursors, but why systems consolidation only applies to a subset of hippocampal memories is unclear. Here we introduce a new neural network formalization of systems consolidation that reveals an overlooked tension—unregulated neocortical memory transfer can cause overfitting and harm generalization in an unpredictable world. We resolve this tension by postulating that memories only consolidate when it aids generalization. This framework accounts for partial hippocampal–cortical memory transfer and provides a normative principle for reconceptualizing numerous observations in the field. Generalization-optimized systems consolidation thus provides new insight into how adaptive behavior benefits from complementary learning systems specialized for memorization and generalization.