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How motivation works in the brain and the science behind it

August 8, 2022 - 17 min read

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What is motivation?

What is dopamine?

How does motivation work in the brain?

How to use dopamine to increase your productivity

4 behavioral drivers

The reward theory

Positive emotions vs. intrinsic motivation

Your next move

The moment that motivation kicks in is intense. 

You’re sitting at your desk, scrolling through social media, and then suddenly — motivation hits you like a wave. You put your phone down and get to work. 

One minute you're having all your regular thoughts, then the next, you feel this urge to get up and take action. But where does motivation come from? How does this happen?

Learning how motivation works in the brain is easy, and we’re here to teach you all about it. It doesn't matter your career, where you live, or your hobbies. Knowing the science of motivation benefits everyone. Here, we will break down the neuroscience topics that might confuse you and explain all of the essential elements of motivation.

What is motivation?

Motivation is the force that causes us to act on our desires or fears. It comes from internal or external stimuli and is an outward, driving force that makes people feel compelled to do something. 

We all experience a few different types of motivation. Extrinsic motivation can stem from peer pressure, fear, expectations, our image, and a sense of competitiveness. Intrinsic motivation is our own desire to succeed or accomplish something. Being self-motivated is handy when it comes to meeting our goals. 

We usually won’t act without a sense of drive or urgency. Think back to a task you had to do that you put off longer than you should have. When you finally did the task you put off all day, did it take you a mere five minutes? Was it something simple, with no real incentive?

If it's too simple, you might struggle to feel motivated. It’s important to have a sense of motivation to help us with our decision-making and productivity — even for minor tasks.

This is because our brains rely on dopamine to regular our motivation. 

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What is dopamine?

For our motivation, we can thank dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in our motivation levels.

Dopamine is known for making us feel good and improving our moods, which is usually the extent to which it's described. But dopamine actually encourages us to seek out more and more things we enjoy.

The human brain recognizes what it likes and what makes it happy. Let's say, for example, cheesecake. Even if you aren't eating any at the moment, your brain will release dopamine to inspire you to go grab yourself a piece. 

In our brains, there’s an area of the brain called the amygdala, which is crucial to motivation. When stimulated, it sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that stores that information for our memories or helps us process information for us to respond or ignore.

When something happens that we enjoy, like eating cheesecake, our brain takes notes. Later on, our hippocampus retrieves our long-term memories. When our brains want to boost our levels of dopamine and remind us of that cheesecake we love, our hippocampus helps.

Rewards like food can also help us stay motivated by reminding us of the sweet dopamine release we’ll receive when we finish the task. Researchers at Vanderbilt University actually found that people who we consider “go-getters” — or individuals who constantly seem motivated — have greater dopamine signalling, meaning they respond better to reward.

Dopamine is an aspect of motivation that does plenty of groundwork without us realizing it. That’s why it's important to understand what can boost it and how it works in our brains.

Even with rewards in front of us, it can be hard to stay motivated. At BetterUp, our coaches are here to help you learn what truly motivates you to help you stay focused on your goals.

How does motivation work in the brain?

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What causes motivation in the brain besides just dopamine being released? First, we need to understand that research has found that three main factors influence our motivation: our physiological state, environment, and past. These factors influence what parts of the brain control motivation, which is primarily the amygdala. But let's circle back to our friend, dopamine.

The dopamine signal moving in between neurons and receptors inside the synapses of our brain allows signals to keep moving. For our motivation, the dopamine pathway is crucial. The reward pathway — or mesolithic pathway — in the middle part of our brain goes to the cerebral cortex, which is on the top of our brains.

Dopamine also travels through is the nucleus accumbens. As soon as there's an abundance of dopamine, it lets our brains know that something good will happen. Specifically, it means a reward.

When dopamine floats move through the reward system, it teaches our brain to connect this brain activity to pleasure. It keeps us in pursuit of more dopamine in each part of our brain. This then spurs our motivation. We know that if we work, we’ll have a rush of this neurotransmitter. Our brain uses that to its advantage. 

How to use dopamine to increase your productivity

Neuroscience aside, you’re probably wondering how to use your dopamine releases to your advantage. Whether it's for professional pursuits or you just have a lot of errands to run, we can strategically increase our productivity. You don't need to try all of these hacks, but finding one that works well with your lifestyle and schedule can greatly affect your overall productivity. 

Here are eight tips to help you boost your dopamine to be more productive:

  1. Record your accomplishments, even if they're just for you to see
  2. Share your work to inspire others around you that are struggling
  3. Incorporate physical exercise into your routine 
  4. Rest your brain with self-care practices and downtime to avoid mental fatigue
  5. Break your tasks down if they're too big into smaller, more achievable goals to check more tasks off of your to-do list
  6. Listen to your favorite music while you do things
  7. Think about how proud and content you'll feel after you've accomplished your goals
  8. Understand the importance and value behind your work

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4 behavioral drivers

Since our motivation requires some drive to make us act, we can learn to identify what our drivers are. We can focus on them more and boost our motivation when we know what drives us.

Let's review the four main drivers of our behavior:

1. The drive to learn new things

We generally want to figure out why and how if something's confusing us. We also want to learn how we can level up and sharpen our skills. In the workplace, you could start out as an entry-level employee.

But each day, you put in work to learn how to develop your skills to become part of management. There are many areas of our lives where we could focus our personal development. It’s human nature.

2. The drive to bond with others

Do you have people in your life that you click with over everything? You're like-minded, share similar values, and overall get along well. It's beneficial for us to have relationships with people who support us and who we can offer support in return. Our well-being relies on our social health and is better when we have people we feel comfortable and safe with in our lives.

3. The drive to protect

We want to protect what we care about and love in the world. Whether that's people, a place, our work, or ourselves. Threats can pop up and cause us to feel the need to defend and protect things. If you see someone bullying your best friend, you could feel the need to become involved and protect them. That’s a beautiful thing.

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4. The drive to gain

Each day, we want things. It could be your favorite meal, a new bike, or a professional accomplishment. Some of the things we want to gain can come rather quickly, whereas others take more time and sustained effort.

Whether they require short-term or long-term commitment, they force us to act. Gaining and acquiring things can be from rewards, which is another topic we're going to discuss regarding our motivations.

The reward theory

The reward theory helps explain how we experience a boost of dopamine before our rewards. It says that we all develop a relationship with things that give us positive, happy, and exciting feelings. They can come from anything, including food, sports, pets, or our favorite movies.

The theory also highlights that we develop these relationships with things that don’t demand a lot in return, meaning we don’t have to work very hard to feel joy (dopamine is great evidence for this theory).

Another theory that’s often similarly discussed is the incentive theory, which explains that our behavior is motivated through rewards and reinforcements along the way. We're motivated to do things because of external stimuli, like when we go to work each day to earn money.

This theory highlights the importance of rewards as far as how to motivate your brain and increase energy because we love rewards. 

As we have greater rewards in our sights, our motivation rises. We want those rewards, and how can we achieve them without putting in the effort? 

Positive emotions vs. intrinsic motivation

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Intrinsic motivation, which is when we do things without needing or seeing an external reward, isn't a bullet-proof way of feeling focused all the time. Just because a professional baseball player likes to play baseball doesn't mean that they're happy every time they walk on the pitch.

We should look at motivation as a skill that we can develop with hard work and practice.

There's also a difference between enjoying something and wanting something where our motivation levels are concerned. Liking things can be passive and doesn't require effort. A baseball player knows they like baseball. 

But wanting something is much different. It demands a process, plan of action, and work. If the baseball player wants to become an all-star, they know it won’t happen by picking up a glove and throwing a ball around however they'd like. It takes dedication, practice, and drive. 

It also takes plenty of mental fitness. With mental fitness, we have to dedicate ourselves to practicing each day to get better. We need purpose, goal-setting, and a growth mindset. When we encounter setbacks, we need to learn how to be resilient and innovative with our problem-solving to overcome them.

Your next move

Learning how motivation works in the brain isn't the easiest, lightest subject. But once you understand dopamine and the neuroscience of motivation itself, it doesn't seem as complex.

It seems a lot more manageable when we break down what motivation is and how it thrives. Understanding how we can flood the regions of the brain with more dopamine can benefit us professionally and personally. The more motivation we have, the more opportunities we can take advantage of or learn skills. 

You don't have to be a neuroscientist to understand and harness the science of motivation. You just have to be someone who puts in the effort and is ready to learn.

Having the right mindset is crucial when learning how to become and stay motivated. BetterUp can help you stay motivated by setting achievable goals and holding you accountable each step of the way.

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Published August 8, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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