In search of the neural circuits of intrinsic motivation
Children seem to acquire new know-how in a continuous and open-ended manner. In this paper, we hypothesize that an intrinsic motivation to progress in learning is at the origins of the remarkable structure of children’s developmental trajectories. In this view, children engage in exploratory and playful activities for their own sake, not as steps toward other extrinsic goals. The central hypothesis of this paper is that intrinsically motivating activities correspond to expected decrease in prediction error. This motivation system pushes the infant to avoid both predictable and unpredictable situations in order to focus on the ones that are expected to maximize progress in learning. Based on a computational model and a series of robotic experiments, we show how this principle can lead to organized sequences of behavior of increasing complexity characteristic of several behavioral and developmental patterns observed in humans.We then discuss the putative circuitry underlying such an intrinsic motivation system in the brain and formulate two novel hypotheses. The first one is that tonic dopamine acts as a learning progress signal. The second is that this progress signal is directly computed through a hierarchy of microcortical circuits that act both as prediction and metaprediction systems.