Reinforcement learning: Computational theory and biological mechanisms

HFSP J. 2007 May;1(1):30-40. doi: 10.2976/1.2732246/10.2976/1. Epub 2007 May 8.


Reinforcement learning is a computational framework for an active agent to learn behaviors on the basis of a scalar reward signal. The agent can be an animal, a human, or an artificial system such as a robot or a computer program. The reward can be food, water, money, or whatever measure of the performance of the agent. The theory of reinforcement learning, which was developed in an artificial intelligence community with intuitions from animal learning theory, is now giving a coherent account on the function of the basal ganglia. It now serves as the "common language" in which biologists, engineers, and social scientists can exchange their problems and findings. This article reviews the basic theoretical framework of reinforcement learning and discusses its recent and future contributions toward the understanding of animal behaviors and human decision making.