The Neuroscience of Motivation

DopamineLack of motivation is a common complaint in the 21st century. Many people talk about feeling a lack of motivation. There are many factors that control how motivated a person feels: incentives, deterrents, personal interest, cognitive dissonance, past childhood traumas, and dopamine levels all rate highly. Each of these topics deserves an article in its own right, but for this topic, however, this article will concern itself merely with self-esteem and dopamine levels. Furthermore, it will act simply as an introduction to the topic of dopamine and its relationship to motivation. If you are interested in this topic, you are urged to do your own further research, as this article will not be an in-depth academic piece. There are a few links at the bottom to get you started.

Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that appears to be strongly connected with motivation. People who lack dopamine have difficulty getting up to do anything. In fact, Parkinson’s disease, a condition that gradually paralyses its victims over time, does so by killing off the neurons responsible for producing dopamine.   Without dopamine, we are simply brains trapped in jars. This raises some interesting questions about the nature of depression: is depression actually about sadness at all or just about motivation? If we pull happiness and motivation apart from each other, we can arrive at four distinct states:

  1. Happy and motivated.
  2. Miserable and unmotivated.
  3. Miserable, but motivated.
  4. Happy, but unmotivated.

Raising your dopamine levels will not necessarily affect your overall levels of happiness. What it will do is raise your levels of motivation. You might not like your life or your job, but you will get out of bed and go to work and do your work productively despite being miserable. Think of a drug addict being highly motivated to steal money, to lie and cheat to get more of his fix, or the woman addicted to dangerous sexual activities. Neither of these people is happy, yet they are highly motivated.

It is possible that anti-depressants may simply increase a person’s motivation, while leaving their underlying unhappiness untreated, but because the person is out of touch with their feelings, they do not realise they are still miserable. Because this person is motivated to work hard, they do not realise they still have a problem because their measure of well-being is based on their productivity, not on their feelings of happiness.

The question of what is happiness is one that philosophers have been grappling with at least since the time of Socrates, and again, it requires its own separate article. Let’s assume that we just want to discuss motivation levels, not happiness levels, because more dopamine means more motivation, but not necessarily more happiness.

The amount of dopamine a person produces is related to how important they feel. If a person feels important, they will produce a large amount of dopamine and consequently have a high level of motivation and productivity. If a person feels worthless they will produce a small amount of dopamine and struggle to apply themselves to a task productively. Studies in apes indicate that as apes move up the social hierarchy their dopamine production increases, and when they lose a fight, or are exiled, their dopamine levels drop. This suggests that self-esteem is closely tied to motivation.

However, it is not that simple. Some people are highly admired, yet suffer from crippling depression. While it is arguable that drug addicts think very poorly of themselves, they are still highly motivated to seek out their choice of addiction.

In the case of the person who is highly admired, say a beautiful model, she may well be held in high esteem, but esteem is given by other people and is different from self-esteem which comes from oneself. The model might feel motivated so long as she is receiving praise from the people around her, but once isolated from praise, or worse, is criticised, her dopamine levels will crash and she will feel unmotivated. If the model wishes to have consistent levels of motivation, she will need to ween herself off her dependency on other people providing her with esteem via praise, and learn to nourish herself with self-esteem, or self-praise instead.

Meanwhile in the drug addict we see different dynamics at play. The drug addict does not receive esteem from the community like the model does; instead, he can expect to find contempt from them. Thus the drug addict has already learned to be self-sufficient in providing their own self-praise. The problem with the self-praise of the drug addict is that it is not realistic, but dishonest self-praise. They fill themselves with an inflated sense of self-importance, or we would call entitlement or narcissism. This self-praise gives the drug addict a lot of dopamine and consequently a lot of motivation. If the drug addict was honest with himself, he would soon lose all motivation and it would be good for him because he would lack the motivation to continue his drug habit. Instead, he would have to focus his time on realistic and productive ways to raise his self-esteem.

Dopamine levels are variable, however, they alter according to a formula:

Self-praise (SP) minus self-loathing (SL) equals Motivation (m)

SP – SL = m

During your entire day there is a part of your brain monitoring your behaviour and self. It offers two kinds of feedback: praise and loathing. If you get a promotion at work, expect to get a dose of self-praise. If you stay in bed all morning and do nothing, expect to get hit with a dose of loathing from this part of your brain. However, this mechanism is so sensitive it monitors all your thoughts and ideas about yourself. Here is an example of a person:

I’m quite smart
I’m too short
I earn too little money
I use my money wisely
I am athletic
I look ugly
I am boring to talk to.

Now let’s assign a value to each statement in terms of increased self-praise (SP) or increased self-loathing (SL) and see how it effects their dopamine level:

I’m quite smart (SP + 1)
I’m too short (SL + 1)
I earn too little money (SL + 1)
I use my money wisely (SP + 1)
I am athletic (SP + 1)
I look ugly (SL + 1)
I am boring to talk to (SL + 1)

Let’s add these figures up and put them into our equation:

3 SP – 4 SL = -1 m

Here we find that this person’s motivation is less than their baseline by just one because they have put themselves down more often than they praise themselves. Let’s say, however, that after going through some therapy, this person has changed their attitudes about themselves:

I’m quite smart (SP + 1)
My height is fine (no change)
I earn too little money (SL + 1)
I use my money wisely (SP + 1)
I am athletic (SP + 1)
I look ugly (SL + 1)
I am interesting to talk to (SP + 1)

Adding this up:

4 SP – 2 SL = 2 m

So even though this person has not addressed all of their self-esteem problems, just by adjusting their perception of themselves a little, they are now producing more dopamine than they were producing before.

What is really essential to understand is that our perceptions of ourselves directly affect how much dopamine we produce. The only way to get consistent and lasting changes in our motivation levels is to re-evaluate our perceptions of ourselves so that we reduce the self-loathing factor and maximise the self-praising factor. However, how do these self-evaluations of ourselves get set in place to begin with?

If a child is bullied at school, the child will typically perceive themselves as worthless or unwanted. They will have self-loathing perceptions of themselves, increasing their SL score and decreasing their m score. Following this, their dopamine levels will drop and they will acquire the trait of low motivation. However, if a child gets good grades at school, they may feel important and successful; this leads to greater dopamine production because they have more self-praise points than self-loathing points and in turn, more motivation to continue getting good grades. Thus, if harmful effects like bullying can be avoided, then dopamine production should be naturally relatively high.

In cases of childhood abuse or abusive relationships, people are often told they are worthless and if they adopt these beliefs in themselves being worthless, then depression shortly follows because of the high burden of self-loathing ideas about oneself. Thus, avoidance of verbal abuse, of being shamed or attacked by other people, is a great way to protect yourself from lack of motivation caused by other people. However, most people who lack motivation have internalised the self-loathing and will actively call themselves stupid, worthless, hopeless, and generally just bully themselves. In this way, people can lower their own dopamine levels and paralyse themselves. Often people are completely unaware of how powerful the words they say to themselves actually are. They are choking themselves off from the natural production of dopamine that will allow them to be productive.

Naturally, people who have the habit of telling themselves they are important and useful encourage themselves to produce more dopamine. People who have dishonest or unrealistic views of their own importance can actually have the opposite problem to depression: mania. The excess dopamine produces a euphoric effect where the person feels capable of doing anything and everything; this is what we see in drug addicts and narcissists. If a person is honest and realistic with themselves, this euphoric effect will not happen, but for some people they rate their entire self-worth according to what other people think about them. If other people adore them, say for their physical beauty or their intellect, they may well be prone these bouts of this mania when they receive praise from other people.

A person who is realistic about themselves and their abilities will produce plenty of dopamine for their daily needs and the more productive and successful they are, the more dopamine they will produce and the more active and productive they will become. The threat is always that people who are negative, insulting, controlling, and abusive will feel threatened by other people’s ability to function or compete with them. These people try to drag other people down rather than work to improve and lift themselves up. They are the bullies and control freaks of the world and their goal is to lower your dopamine levels by convincing you to believe negative things about yourself, like that you’re stupid, unstable, lazy, fat, ugly, or other self-loathing ideas. If you are highly self-aware, you can typically deflect a lot of their barbs without taking any injury; however, if you are not so self-aware, then avoiding these negative and critical people by getting away from them and their influence is the best way to protect your dopamine production to keep yourself productive and able to wake up enthusiastically each morning.

Further Research

Brain Dopamine Receptor Density Correlates with Social Status
Dopamine Impacts Your Willingness to Work
Dopamine Regulates the Motivation to Act
Dopamine Not About Pleasure


One thought on “The Neuroscience of Motivation

  1. Pingback: Interesting article about motivation: | the.neuron.web

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