PerspectiveNeuroscience

Why does time seem to fly when we're having fun?

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Science  09 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6317, pp. 1231-1232
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4021

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Summary

Animals use the neurotransmitter dopamine to encode the relationship between their responses and reward. Reinforcement learning theory (1) successfully explains the role of phasic bursts of dopamine in terms of future reward maximization. Yet, dopamine clearly plays other roles in shaping behavior that have no obvious relationship to reinforcement learning, including modulating the rate at which our subjective sense of time grows in real time. On page 1273 of this issue, Soares et al. (2) closely examine the role of dopamine in mice performing a task in which they keep track of the time between two events and make decisions about this temporal duration. The results suggest the need to reassess the leading theory of dopamine function in timing—the dopamine clock hypothesis (3). They may also help explain empirical phenomena that challenge the reinforcement learning account of dopamine function.