The curse of dimensionality plagues models of reinforcement learning and decision-making. The process of abstraction solves this by constructing abstract variables describing features shared by different specific instances, reducing dimensionality and enabling generalization in novel situations. Here we characterized neural representations in monkeys performing a task where a hidden variable described the temporal statistics of stimulus-response-outcome mappings. Abstraction was defined operationally using the generalization performance of neural decoders across task conditions not used for training. This type of generalization requires a particular geometric format of neural representations. Neural ensembles in dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and hippocampus, and in simulated neural networks, simultaneously represented multiple hidden and explicit variables in a format reflecting abstraction. Task events engaging cognitive operations modulated this format. These findings elucidate how the brain and artificial systems represent abstract variables, variables critical for generalization that in turn confers cognitive flexibility.
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