Motivation is a tricky thing to corral. Tricky, but not impossible.
To trace the source of motivation, let’s begin in the brain where neurotransmitters spark chemical messages to keep us alert and on task. One specific neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation is dopamine.
Dopamine’s chemical signal gets passed from one neuron to the next, interacting with various receptors inside the synapse between the two neurons. This simple arrangement becomes much more complicated when you multiply the effect through the entire brain. Consider: there are different types of receptors, neurons, and pathways that neurotransmitters can take. Things get complicated fast.
For motivation specifically, it matters which pathway dopamine takes. The mesolimbic pathway, which originates in the middle of the brain and branches to various places like the cerebral cortex, is the most important reward pathway in the brain.
One of the mesolimbic’s stops is the nucleus accumbens. Increased dopamine in the nucleus accumbens signals feedback for predicting rewards. Your brain recognizes that something important — good or bad — is about to happen, thus triggering motivation to do something.
Pleasure is just the tip of the dopamine iceberg. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many different areas, including motivation, memory, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning, and oh yeah, pleasurable reward.
Studies of dopamine began with pleasure until researchers began noticing peculiar phenomena. They saw spikes in dopamine during moments of high stress. Dopamine rose in the case of soldiers with PTSD who heard gunfire. Stress and gunfire are not pleasurable phenomena, yet there dopamine was. What gives?
It was clear that dopamine went beyond mere pleasure, and it turns out dopamine’s true effect may be motivation. Dopamine performs its task before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something bad.
Studies confirm the motivation-dopamine link in a number of interesting ways. Behaviorial neuroscientist John Salamone confirmed the link in an animal study on rats who were given the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward. “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”
The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest.
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