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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2014 Mar;45:57-67. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.10.006. Epub 2013 Nov 16.

Deep and beautiful. The reward prediction error hypothesis of dopamine.

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Tilburg Center for Logic, General Ethics, and Philosophy of Science, Tilburg University, P.O. Box 90153, 5000 LE Tilburg, The Netherlands. Electronic address:


According to the reward-prediction error hypothesis (RPEH) of dopamine, the phasic activity of dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain signals a discrepancy between the predicted and currently experienced reward of a particular event. It can be claimed that this hypothesis is deep, elegant and beautiful, representing one of the largest successes of computational neuroscience. This paper examines this claim, making two contributions to existing literature. First, it draws a comprehensive historical account of the main steps that led to the formulation and subsequent success of the RPEH. Second, in light of this historical account, it explains in which sense the RPEH is explanatory and under which conditions it can be justifiably deemed deeper than the incentive salience hypothesis of dopamine, which is arguably the most prominent contemporary alternative to the RPEH.


Dopamine; Explanatory depth; Incentive salience; Reinforcement learning; Reward-prediction error

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