Sympathetic involvement in time-constrained sequential foraging
Appraising sequential offers relative to an unknown future opportunity and a time cost requires an optimization policy that draws on a learned estimate of an environment’s richness. Converging evidence points to a learning asymmetry, whereby estimates of this richness update with a bias toward integrating positive information. We replicate this bias in a sequential foraging (prey selection) task and probe associated activation within the sympathetic branch of the autonomic system, using trial-by-trial measures of simultaneously recorded cardiac autonomic physiology. We reveal a unique adaptive role for the sympathetic branch in learning. It was specifically associated with adaptation to a deteriorating environment: it correlated with both the rate of negative information integration in belief estimates and downward changes in moment-to-moment environmental richness, and was predictive of optimal performance on the task. The findings are consistent with a framework whereby autonomic function supports the learning demands of prey selection.