Two rhesus monkeys performed a distance discrimination task in which they reported whether a red square or a blue circle had appeared farther from a fixed reference point. Because a new pair of distances was chosen randomly on each trial, and because the monkeys had no opportunity to correct errors, no information from the previous trial was relevant to a current one. Nevertheless, many prefrontal cortex neurons encoded the outcome of the previous trial on current trials. A smaller, intermingled population of cells encoded the spatial goal on the previous trial or the features of the chosen stimuli, such as color or shape. The coding of previous outcomes and goals began at various times during a current trial, and it was selective in that prefrontal cells did not encode other information from the previous trial. The monitoring of previous goals and outcomes often contributes to problem solving, and it can support exploratory behavior. The present results show that such monitoring occurs autonomously and selectively, even when irrelevant to the task at hand.
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