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The Neuroscience of Motivation

leadership neuroscience personal development

One Lamp Post at a Time – By Derek Mair

The Neuroscience of How to Motivate Yourself to be Motivated

Motivation: a motive or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way or a desire or willingness to do something…. Motive-Action

It is one's motive to act or ‘behave’ in a certain way. However, what is the force or set of forces that acts behind those motives, and particularly what causes a person to want to repeat that behaviour?

An individual's motivation may be inspired by others or events, so called extrinsic motivation, such as desired rewards from trophies, money, social recognition, or praise… Or it may come from within the individual, so called intrinsic motivation, such as doing a complicated puzzle purely for the reward of personal gratification for solving a problem. Motivation has been considered as one of the most important reasons that inspires a person to move forward in life.

Motivation involves the bio-chemical, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behaviour, of which there are three key components: activation, persistence, and intensity.


When you decide you want to learn something or do something, for example exert your body through a form of exercise like running, or exert your mind through starting a new project, a hormone called norepinephrine, (adrenaline) is released by the adrenal gland and carried by the sympathetic nervous system functioning as a neurotransmitter. When it kicks in it is secreted in the brain stem and body, which brings about a state of alertness, where your subconscious mind/body focuses on duration, path and outcome in relation to what you are focused on.

  • Duration = time.
  • Path = environment to navigate through.
  • Outcome = can I get to a certain point in an anticipated time through that environment.

A primordial survival instinct required to motivate and energise us to escape from predators, such as sabretooth tigers… Prehistoric real-time danger in the present, not contemporary perceived worry, concern, anxiety, apprehension, dread, (fear) of a potential pain in the near future.

This is referred to as the stress response and is a natural response designed by evolution to put us into a state of alertness, indicating that something is about to or has changed in our environment for which we need to be prepared to take action. It is prolonged consistent exposure to the stress hormones, such as Adrenaline and Cortisol that creates a state of maladaptive stress reaction and causes our bodies to move into a state of dis-ease.

Therefore, the early stages of anything we mentally associate to hard work is going to feel like agitation, stress, confusion, because that is the adrenaline kicking in. Stress and agitation are designed to take you toward something that requires us to be adaptive… Not to stop us…

Ultimately the adrenaline response is designed to move us, not to keep us stationary. Learn to expect this feeling, where awareness of it will allow you to push through and build persistent momentum.


Pushing through this initial stress response and taking continual action on a path toward a desired outcome triggers your internal reward system, releasing of another hormone acting as a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. When you hit some perceived milestones along that path Dopamine is transferred via neural pathways to parts of your prefrontal cortex including your Nucleus Accumbens, the area of the brain that sub-consciously seeks pleasure and euphoria reward, which we recognise consciously through our feelings.

The secretion of Dopamine plays a key role in the control of focus, attention, persistence-resilience, learning, and working memory.

Dopamine was designed as a reward for short term intrinsic accomplishments, so you can go just that little bit further, ‘not for big goal reward’. In other words every time you hit a perceived  milestone along a motive-action orientated path, the continual Dopamine response keeps you emotionally engaged through reward, (feeling good about yourself) and also sub-consciously confirms you are on the right path toward your outcome, an internal checkbox that helps you maintain focus and momentum… You may have experienced this as an urge and excitement to keep going whenever you worked on something you were deeply focused and enjoying doing it… Games and sport for example make our Dopamine levels spike because our brain releases it in response to the challenge of the game and the achievement of the goal.

Importantly Dopamine also acts to reduce the rate of norepinephrine, as too much norepinephrine creates the ‘intrinsic’ conditions to quit. By pushing adrenaline levels back down to a manageable rate to maintain concentration but not overpower the system, you inherently give yourself more capacity to do more duration, path and outcome highly focused work. When you hit a milestone, the Dopamine release tends to tighten our focus and we have a strong feeling we can keep on going.

All addictive behavioural patterns trigger the Dopamine response, in that no other behaviour can focus the same level of release… In other words, mother nature designed it so that Dopamine makes you want to continue that behaviour, however preferably linked to healthy pursuits such as learning and developing.

Therefore, to build persistence you need to chunk your actions toward a goal down into smaller milestones. Relating to our example of a running, when you feel you are lacking motivation to keep going, you can chuck it down by pushing for the next lamp post and make sure you celebrate passing it, and then the next, and then the next, one lamp post at a time. 

To maintain that persistence or resilience, rewards must be internal and reward the effort process, ‘not the goal’. People generally think that effort process needs to be or should feel good, but that one more mile you need to run will feel bad... Get excited about the process, metaphorically in any pursuit make that progress about the next lamp post, linked to the desired outcome. Make sure you ‘do not’ introduce thoughts, and positive self-talk linked to the extrinsic reward alone, as it not sustainable…

With your new understanding of the Dopamine reward system, you have the capacity to self-reward the effort process, not only focus the desired outcome:

  1. Set the goal as an intention
  2. Write it down, then release it from your attention
  3. Get real clarity on your emotional motives, (why you want to achieve the goal)
  4. Write those motives down and imagine the feeling of you experiencing them often
  5. Take action by setting small milestones toward the goal and internally reward yourself being grateful every time you achieve one.

Learn to recognise fear, anxiety stress confusion as an entry point for what you want to achieve, allowing you to pass through that mental block more easily and always register your small or even partial wins to supress adrenaline and give your mind the reward energy to keep going.


Like everything in life you live in duality, which is required to bring balance; black and white, yin and yang, good and bad, day and night, and so it is with your Dopamine reward system, which will also trigger a reward when you choose ‘in-action’ to avoid perceived pain. If your neuro-association to the process required to take action, along with its duration (persistency) and intensity (outcome) is greater than the pain of where you are right now, then you will choose in-action. However, the fact that you have chosen perceptually the lesser of two great pains means you will still trigger a Dopamine release, though in this case it will secrete in other parts of the brain, the Anterior Insula, which is involved in emotion and risk perception, and will not motivate you to keep going and build momentum. Fundamentally though, you have still been rewarded with Dopamine, therefore you may condition yourself over time to keep on choosing a habitual pattern of in-action every time… Or at least until the pain of where you are in the now becomes too great and supersedes the pain perceived from taking action. Herein lies the human conundrum of duality.  

Humans are the only creatures on the planet who focus on the future instead of the now and use imagination to construct a possible undesirable future, which may never, and probably won’t happen, initiating ‘fear’ that brings on the anxiety alertness condition causing you to become immobilised, and get a Dopamine rewarded for it, all be it not in a Self-Protectional centre instead of a Self-Motivational centre within the brain.

When you start on a path toward your goal and build up some momentum, it is usually always the case that as you need to move more and more out of your comfort zone your pathway to get to your goal will intensify. Your brain will naturally try to avoid you going into the unfamiliar, the unknown and get rewarded if it succeeds. So how do we make the unfamiliar familiar?

We already know that focus is the entry point to change so just like in sport you can bring focus to a particular perception or belief that is not serving you and begin the process of identifying yourself as the person who has already experienced your motives, ‘your whys’ associated to the end goal and take action to get to the next lamp post; one at a time remember, intrinsically rewarding yourself, through self-talk each time.

You can actually use intensity to your advantage rather that it taking advantage of you, causing you to quit. 

The more you push through unfamiliar events or situations the more you will begin to identify yourself as someone who can keep doing that, remembering that Dopamine tiggers memory and synapsis changes in your brain. This process is called Neuroplasticity, which is triggered by deep focus (emotional experience or mental attention) though actually occurs during deep restful sleep.

When in the alert state Norepinephrine and Acetylcholine marks a synapsis for change during sleep. Acetylcholine is a highly active neurotransmitter that diffuses across the synapse, the narrow gap between synaptic nerve cells, and plays an important role in connecting synapse to each other. The more a synaptic cluster fires and wires together the more it will become a new go to auto-program (habitual thought pattern of belief) that you recall in different situations. You can literally fire and wire a new identity that is closer to your vision of your ideal self that pushes through intensity.

Your Nucleus Basalis, which sit behind your Nucleus Accumbens trigger release of Acetylcholine which mark those experiences (synapsis) for change and transfer to long term memory during deep rest… You literally recall yourself as a better you, and the more you take motive-action that more it happens.

Darwinian’s theory of evolution provides for biological diversification, however it’s not the whole story… Yes, there is natural selection however the truth is that biological beings adapt to their environment to find balance with it. You adapt to the environments you live in and work in – in fact we are constantly trying to change our external environment without realising our external environment only exists based upon our perception or beliefs of that environment. In other words, no matter how tough it is right now, you can make it…. No matter how intense a path to your goal becomes, you can effect change from within and make it. There is no external fear perception that can stop you unless you let it.

Why You Quit

As discussed, any time we exert effort a certain amount of norepinephrine (Adrenaline) is released in the brain and if enough is released it will shut down cognitive control of the motor circuitry and we quit. In sport it is called hitting the wall, and the same happens in life compounded by emotional self and at least I sport lactic acid sending overload signals to the brain… The fact is your body and mind are far more resilient than you believe, it is the part of the brain that is coded to ‘avoid pain’ that takes over and make you quit.

It is the Dopamine next lamp post intrinsic reward that can reset these adrenaline levels, keeping them at a level where you can maintain focus and energy but not enough to trigger the quit mechanisms… Dopamine is permission to keep going and you grant that permission to yourself… no one can grant it to you… External rewards will not endure, internal rewards is our most substantial fuel source and will create an infinite amount of energy to keep going.

Most of us are conditioned to associate good feelings with external rewards, however using external rewards is not sustainable for growth. To fuel intrinsic rewards your motive (why) also has to be strong enough to reference it as a switching mechanism and go just that little further to the next lamp post. Remembering your ‘whys’, in correlation with intrinsic reward at the next lamp post will ignite the fuel…. Purpose drives persistency and rewards drive resilience.

Courage and Determination

To gain entry into the renowned US Navy SEAL BUD/S training and selection process your first need to pass through the extremely tough SEAL Physical Screening Test. Of the few who make it into the BUD/S program less than 10% of recruits qualify as NAVY SEAL’s

Neuroscientific research by Dr. Andrew Huberman and his team in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine studied what may be different about the 10%... They discovered that it was not the physical fittest or toughest that survive, nor do they get through it with only grit and determination… They did it through giving a sense of meaning to their actions, (strong why’s) and micro scaling each day into chunks, then rewarding themselves for achieving those small wins… One lamp post at a time.

As it turns out, “the process of self-reward is grit and determination in a neuro-chemical sense” and is how to motivate yourself to be motivated.

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