What is Dopamine? Reward, Learning, and Flexibility

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for reward-based learning. It’s involved in compulsive behaviors and wanting (anticipation, craving) but not liking (pleasure).  Dopamine is made in the Substantia Nigra. dopamine pathway problems include addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia.


My favorite explanation of the function of dopamine is the following:

We suggest that interposed between input from both the internal and external world, dopamine modulates behavioral energy expenditure along two axes: a conserve-expend axis that regulates generalized activity and an explore-exploit axes that regulates the degree to which reward value biases the distribution of activity.”  

It’s from the study: Putting desire on a budget: dopamine and energy expenditure, reconciling reward and resources.

Another, more flexible way of thinking about dopamine comes from a study titled “A kinder, gentler dopamine… highlighting dopamine’s role in behavioral flexibility

The “root” function of dopamine is not to drive reward behavior, but rather to adjust reward oriented behavior in order to achieve adaptive behavioral flexibility. That is, dopamine evolved to adapt reward pursuit, not blindly drive it like a catecholaminergic id. From this perspective, compulsive pathology arises from the loss of dopamine’s capacities to adapt appetitive behavior to the environment. Instead of thinking of dopamine as a “reward neurotransmitter,” we might just as well consider it a “flexibility neurotransmitter.”


Neurohypnotic Bonus

  1. Putting desire on a budget: dopamine and energy expenditure, reconciling reward and resources

  2. Dopaminergic Control of the Exploration-Exploitation Trade-Off via the Basal Ganglia


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