The Science Behind Motivation




It’s getting to that time in the school year when the novelty of new classes and new friends is wearing off. We’re all feeling lethargic and low on energy as we’re studying for midterms and writing more papers. We don’t feel motivated anymore—or maybe we never did to begin with. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that if we were more motivated about school it would be a lot easier to get our work done sooner and more efficiently. So why can’t we? What is the science behind motivation that is holding us back from doing our best?

This came as a surprise to me, but what motivates us is the chemical dopamine.  In 2012, a study was published by two psychology professors at the University of Connecticut that explained their findings on the function of dopamine. According to their findings, dopamine should no longer be considered as a “reward” chemical because dopamine is a much more diverse chemical found at the root of motivation.

According to a study from researchers at a university in Spain, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, at its core, motivates us to act. It is the most basic chemical that is released to tell us how to react to a situation, either positively or negatively.

Another study published by Michael Treadway and David Zald of Vanderbilt University in 2012 also proved that dopamine is connected with motivation, and went even deeper in their study. Using a PET scan, they scanned the brains of highly motivational people and less motivational people. They found that dopamine was found in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain in the people who were highly motivational and in the anterior insula in the people who were less motivational. This study is significant in the science behind motivation because, as Treadway said, “this study provides new information about how dopamine determines individual differences in the behavior of human reward-seekers.”

So what does all of this mean? It means that scientists have found the mechanism behind motivation: dopamine; and have rejected the null hypotheses that dopamine is only associated with pleasure.

According to this article, lack of motivation, or procrastination, can be attributed to an emotional coping mechanism. When we procrastinate we put ourselves at the present time ahead of ourselves in the future. Most of the time we use avoidance to cope with our emotions, which can quickly turn into procrastination. This can also be attributed to a lack of regulation skills.

So what can we do to be more motivated? According to neurologist Dr. Willis, the best thing to do is rewire our brains and set tangible goals. These goals can be unrelated to school work, such as goals related to physical activity or learning a new hobby. The more we meet these other goals, the more our brains will train to meet every goal we set, including those related to schoolwork.

Related to that, Pychyl said that the most important thing to do is set little goals, as in breaking our work into several parts, so we don’t feel overwhelmed with one big assignment.

Related to that, Thomas W. Malone and Mark R. Lepper have discovered that creating incentives for yourself actually backfires. As hard is this may seem to comprehend, according to the two psychologists, doing the tasks is a reward in itself and the only reward we should need. That seems pretty tough to wrap our minds around, because it is going against our basic human nature. But this also ties in with how dopamine is the mechanism behind motivation. Because it is considered a “reward” chemical, us just being motivated to do something should be enough incentive for us to do it. So the next time you’re writing a paper or studying for a test, remember that your brain has the capabilities to reward itself without an outside incentive.



4 thoughts on “The Science Behind Motivation

  1. Chelsea Greenberg

    Your blog caught my attention, especially because and the days get shorter and the air is colder, all I want to do is sleep and watch Netflix, not do any of my work. The studies you incorporated reinforce your ideas in a successful way! Your use of class terminology was successful, especially your use of mechanism. Your blog made me think about how depressed people are often thought of as lazy and unmotivated, and this is because of the lack of dopamine their brain creates, and this actually supports the idea that dopamine is correlated with motivation! Here is an article about the specifics of Dopamine Deficient Depression. Great blog!

    1. Lauren Hile Post author

      Wow, I didn’t even think about the connection between dopamine and depression. I remember learning about DDD in psychology last year and how giving someone with DDD a boost of energy could most likely be life threatening. This article explains the effects of dopamine and the lack of dopamine, and how to increase dopamine. Here is another article about the different types of metal health disorders related to dopamine. I had no idea that dopamine effected so many different aspects of our body.

  2. Julia R Martini

    I really enjoyed reading this because I have a little background knowledge about the chemical dopamine. Last year, a unit in my psychology class was mainly about the chemical dopamine. It’s a chemical that releases pleasure and reward. I do agree with your statement that dopamine motivates us but I think it is the second step of motivation. Dopamine will not be released if a person doesn’t make the first attempt at trying something. There are the different ways dopamine affects our body.
    On a personal opinion, I strongly believe that motivation is mostly mental. If a person convinces themselves of something for a long period of time, it becomes natural and eventually a routine. These are some tips on how to stay motivated. I found it funny but also very informative.

  3. Dana Corinne Pirrotta

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post!
    I had learned about dopamine in anatomy class in high school, but had not really thought of the chemical since! I know that dopamine regulates our reward system, and that explains why we can get really happy sometimes after eating food. Activities like eating and sex release tons of dopamine, and can make us feel really great. While I did know about how dopamine plays a big part in our motivations, It was news to me that setting up an external reward system for us after we accomplish a goal might not be the best move!
    After I do well on a test, or have a good week of workouts, I’ll treat myself to creamery ice cream or buy a new dress.We live in a culture of “treating ourselves” and maybe this is why we still aren’t happy when we reach our goals. After reading this post, I’m going to try to look at reaching my goals as a reward in itself. Getting an A on an exam is much more rewarding than icecream! Here is a link to an article that discusses how our “treat yourself” attitude is actually hurting us.
    Science aside, I really like your writing style and this post was organized really clearly and efficiently.

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