LifeHack: The Science of Self-Motivation

The Science of Being Motivated

This morning when I sat down to write this blog post I did not anticipate it taking this long. Technically I was working, finding the right pictures, deleting sections that were too long, adding links to relevant material that would enhance the conversation, however it wasn’t time well spent. I spent 10 minutes checking email, 15 responding to tweets and another 30 minutes disappeared when I found a funny picture on icanhas.cheezburger.com

Does this happen to you?

Motivation is often hard to muster. Hard, but not impossible.

The origin of motivation takes place all in your head.

Tracing the source of motivation, I was able to find the section of the brain where neurotransmitters spark and tells our body to release the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful chemical that interacts with various receptors inside the synapse between two neurons. This simple action becomes strong when multiplied throughout the entire brain. When we speak of motivation, dopamine takes the mesolimbic pathway which starts at the center of the brain and branches across the different sections such as the cerebral cortex. This pathway holds the most influence over your motivation as it controls the reward system for your brain. One of the pathways in the mesolimbic system leads to the nucleus accumbens. This section of the brain is in charge of recognizing whether something is good, bad or unimportant. Therefore, an increased dopamine rush to this section of the brain triggers your brain to take action providing signals of rewards.

The Science of Motivation

The Science of Motivation

Isn’t dopamine just to make me feel good?

But wait, I thought dopamine was all about pleasure

Most individuals think this, as we have come to recognize dopamine as the brain’s pleasure chemical. However the truth is that this powerful chemical can amplify many feelings including depressions, sleepiness, memory and behavior to name a few. Dopamine’s effects can often be applied to almost every reward pleasurable or not. We often hear about it in the media when applied to topics that perk others attention such as sex and drugs, however the other side of the coin isn’t as popular to comment on. Studies have found that spikes in dopamine during moments of high stress such as a soldier in battle can cause ripple effects such as PTSD. Even in times of high stress dopamine is released… why? This powerful little chemicals true purpose was found to be the brain’s tool to encourage us to act… otherwise known as motivation. The Science of Motivation Studies have confirmed this link to motivation. Behavioral neuroscientist John Salamone conducted a study on rats given two piles of food. One pile of food was twice the size of the other, however it was behind a small fence. The rats with a lower level of dopamine almost always chose the easier meal, however when given an increased level of dopamine, the rats chose to jump the fence for the greater reward. In a human experiment, a research team in Vanderbilt found that individuals that they classified as “motivated” had higher levels of dopamine in their striatum and prefrontal cortex. Among the “non-motivated” individuals, dopamine was found in the anterior insula the part of the brain involved with emotion and risk. Lower levels of dopamine make people less likely to work hard for the things that they want. Motivation has to do with the cost / benefit analysis of your brain to pleasure itself.

How to Hack Motivation

How can you hack motivation? Well that depends, what is your current drive? Are you a motivated individual that feels that you can always be better, or are you too lackadaisical and you want to be more on-point everyday. How can you use this information to become a better you? You can actually train your brain to feed off positive experiences to rewire your brain to become motivated. You have the power to create an environment of dopamine bursts when you achieve positive rewards. One way to create this environment is by setting goals. If you create S.M.A.R.T. goals you will be able to give yourself bursts of dopamine or dopamine rushes with every goal you complete. Allowing yourself to experience the eustress of working to achieve a goal, and the release that you feel when you physically check that box as done will give your brain positive reinforcement. By creating a habit of this action for mundane tasks during the day you will be able to train your brain or rewire your brain to positively reinforce itself. Another way to transform your brain from a slacker to an attacker (yeah, that rhymed) is to negatively enforce bad behaviors. As you recall from the example before, dopamine is present when you have a bad experience as well as a good one. If you negatively reinforce these actions your brain will respond by giving you a lack of motivation when doing that in the future. Your current level of motivation should be front of mind at all times. Recognize your level and consciously react in order to rewire your brain. As with all training, the key to success is repetition. There’s a biological motivation to succeed and you can hack motivation by embracing repetition, training and consistency.