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The Neuroscience of Motivation

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Motivation can be a powerful tool, though on the flip side it can also be a tricky beast. Sometimes it is really easy to get motivated, and you can dive headfirst into whatever you’re doing, creating a whirlwind of excitement. Other times, it is nearly impossible to figure out how to motivate yourself and you feel like you’re walking through a thick swamp of procrastination.

So what is motivation? The author Steven Pressfield has a great line in his book, The War of Art: ‘At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.’

Within our brains, we have an emotionally sensitive switching station, called the amygdala, which lies deep within the limbic system. In the absence of high stress or fear, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC’s role then is to turn that information into long-term memory or process it through the cognitive and emotional control networks of the higher functions within our brain. They then allow us to either respond or to ignore it.

However, this reflective response cannot take place during a high-stress emotional state which blocks this flow of information. So states of frustration or boredom are associated with a high-stress state within the amygdala.

In a study at Vanderbilt University, scientists mapped the brains of ‘go-getters’ and ‘slackers’ and found that those willing to work hard for rewards had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and PFC, which are both linked to motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception.

See, our motivation levels are related to our perceived difficulty of a task and the perceived rewards that come from completing that task. So when the rewards are low, then the motivation to complete it will naturally be lower.

Furthermore, if the perceived difficulty of a task suddenly increases during a period of low motivation, our motivational level will then drop even further. Eventually leading to a downward spiral in motivational level unless we do something to override this.

So how do we override this?

Let me introduce you to the Expectancy Theory, which was created by Victor Harold Vroom, a business school professor at the Yale School of Management. The theory proposes that people will choose how to behave depending on the outcomes they expect as a result of their behaviour. It treats both internal and situational forces and assumes that each individual is rational and capable. 

Therefore, people are most motivated if they believe that they will receive the desired reward if they hit an achievable target. They are least motivated if they don’t want the reward or they don’t believe that their efforts will result in the reward.

The key here is to set achievable goals.

When the task you’re looking to achieve has a larger reward, then it makes sense that you will be motivated to complete it. So there are two ways to work with this. The first is to reduce the perceived difficulty of the task. So a great way to do this is by breaking bigger tasks down into smaller tasks.  The second is to increase the perceived rewards from completing the task, which works really well when you have lots of small tasks.

The importance of motivation is often under-estimated and people only notice the lack of it, long after it has been lost. So set achievable goals daily and make sure you reward yourself in some way each time you achieve your tasks.


Image credit: Freepik

Dean Griffiths is the founder and CEO of Energy Fusion, the first interactive online platform to subjectively assess physical and mental health.


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