Jacquelyn Shelton, Abdul Sheikh, Pietro Berkes, Joerg Bornschein, Jörg Lücke
An increasing number of experimental studies indicate that perception encodes a posterior probability distribution over possible causes of sensory stimuli, which is used to act close to optimally in the environment. One outstanding difficulty with this hypothesis is that the exact posterior will in general be too complex to be represented directly, and thus neurons will have to represent an approximation of this distribution. Two influential proposals of efficient posterior representation by neural populations are: 1) neural activity represents samples of the underlying distribution, or 2) they represent a parametric representation of a variational approximation of the posterior. We show that these approaches can be combined for an inference scheme that retains the advantages of both: it is able to represent multiple modes and arbitrary correlations, a feature of sampling methods, and it reduces the represented space to regions of high probability mass, a strength of variational approximations. Neurally, the combined method can be interpreted as a feed-forward preselection of the relevant state space, followed by a neural dynamics implementation of Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) to approximate the posterior over the relevant states. We demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of this approach on a sparse coding model. In numerical experiments on artificial data and image patches, we compare the performance of the algorithms to that of exact EM, variational state space selection alone, MCMC alone, and the combined select and sample approach. The select and sample approach integrates the advantages of the sampling and variational approximations, and forms a robust, neurally plausible, and very efficient model of processing and learning in cortical networks. For sparse coding we show applications easily exceeding a thousand observed and a thousand hidden dimensions.