A longstanding view of the organization of human and animal behavior holds that behavior is hierarchically organized—in other words, directed toward achieving superordinate goals through the achievement of subordinate goals or subgoals. However, most research in neuroscience has focused on tasks without hierarchical structure. In past work, we have shown that negative reward prediction error (RPE) signals in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) can be linked not only to superordinate goals but also to subgoals. This suggests that mPFC tracks impediments in the progression toward subgoals. Using fMRI of human participants engaged in a hierarchical navigation task, here we found that mPFC also processes positive prediction errors at the level of subgoals, indicating that this brain region is sensitive to advances in subgoal completion. However, when subgoal RPEs were elicited alongside with goal-related RPEs, mPFC responses reflected only the goal-related RPEs. These findings suggest that information from different levels of hierarchy is processed selectively, depending on the task context.

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