Rational inattention and tonic dopamine

Published Date: 
March 24, 2021

Slow-timescale (tonic) changes in dopamine (DA) contribute to a wide variety of processes in reinforcement learning, interval timing, and other domains. Furthermore, changes in tonic DA exert distinct effects depending on when they occur (e.g., during learning vs. performance) and what task the subject is performing (e.g., operant vs. classical conditioning). Two influential theories of tonic DA-the average reward theory and the Bayesian theory in which DA controls precision-have each been successful at explaining a subset of empirical findings. But how the same DA signal performs two seemingly distinct functions without creating crosstalk is not well understood. Here we reconcile the two theories under the unifying framework of 'rational inattention,' which (1) conceptually links average reward and precision, (2) outlines how DA manipulations affect this relationship, and in so doing, (3) captures new empirical phenomena. In brief, rational inattention asserts that agents can increase their precision in a task (and thus improve their performance) by paying a cognitive cost. Crucially, whether this cost is worth paying depends on average reward availability, reported by DA. The monotonic relationship between average reward and precision means that the DA signal contains the information necessary to retrieve the precision. When this information is needed after the task is performed, as presumed by Bayesian inference, acute manipulations of DA will bias behavior in predictable ways. We show how this framework reconciles a remarkably large collection of experimental findings. In reinforcement learning, the rational inattention framework predicts that learning from positive and negative feedback should be enhanced in high and low DA states, respectively, and that DA should tip the exploration-exploitation balance toward exploitation. In interval timing, this framework predicts that DA should increase the speed of the internal clock and decrease the extent of interference by other temporal stimuli during temporal reproduction (the central tendency effect). Finally, rational inattention makes the new predictions that these effects should be critically dependent on the controllability of rewards, that post-reward delays in intertemporal choice tasks should be underestimated, and that average reward manipulations should affect the speed of the clock-thus capturing empirical findings that are unexplained by either theory alone. Our results suggest that a common computational repertoire may underlie the seemingly heterogeneous roles of DA.

John G Mikhael Lucy LaiSamuel J Gershman