A new study suggests that the brain releases the feel-good chemical dopamine in response to learning. When we make the right choice, the surge of dopamine helps us appreciate what we've done so we eventually "learn" to do it again.
Researchers also found that raising the level of dopamine in the brain may help us learn better.
Several theories of learning are based on the idea that the brain uses success and failure to improve future decision-making. These theories highlight the role that anticipating a reward plays in learning.
Researchers say this study helps explain the biological mechanism behind the way the brain uses reward anticipation to improve future decisions.
In the study, published in the journal Nature, researchers treated adult volunteers with drugs to increase or decrease levels of dopamine circulating in the brain. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain involved in its reward system.
Participants were then asked to perform a reward-based learning task. They were presented with pairs of symbols on a computer screen. Each symbol was linked to different probabilities of monetary gain or loss, and researchers assessed how well participants were able to maximize their monetary gain.
The results showed that participants with higher levels of dopamine performed better on the learning task and became more adept at choosing the symbol with the best chances of reward.
Researcher Mathias Pessiglione and colleagues at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, say the finding suggests the brain's dopamine system helps us learn by rewarding educated decisions.
SOURCES: Pessiglione, M., Nature, Aug. 23, 2006 online edition. News release, Nature
By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed by Michael Smith