By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
This post originally published on July 21, 2021 here at That Darn Amygdala. It has been updated to show the most accurate and up-to-date research
Ahhh, motivation. Motivation seems to be something you have, or you don’t. Have you ever wondered why that is? To me, it feels like one of the greatest mysteries of the brain. Prime example: being highly motivated to do laundry then letting it sit in baskets for days before the motivation returns on the next laundry day. It can be so frustrating when motivation just packs its bags and leaves.
This post gets to highlight the joy of the prefrontal cortex (along with all of its parts) and its role in discovering and maintaining our motivation levels. Do you feel motivated to learn about it (total intended dad joke there)? I hope you are!
What is Motivation?
By definition, motivation is “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way” (motivation, 1989). Think about it: every action we take has motivation behind it. Staring into the fridge? You are motivated by hunger (or boredom) to be looking in there. Searching through your closet? You are motivated by wanting to look good (or dressing comfy). Popping in your kids’ favorite movie in for the 6th time today? You got it! You are motivated by the joyous sound of silence!
Motivation drives all of our behaviors. Whether we are trying to gain some sort of reward (like finding our favorite leftovers in the fridge) or avoiding some sort of consequence (for example, the guilt and disgust when we find that our favorite clothes fit tighter than fashion allows them to), motivation is there, directing what we do. Where does motivation start in the brain?
For years, scientists and doctors have studied where motivation comes from in the brain. It is so darn hard to study because it is the root of every human action. Did you know there is no actual theory on motivation? There have been arguments throughout the scientific community about if there are different parts to motivation, or if motivation is different than a drive or need, and even if there is a way to measure motivation? With so much up in the air about motivation, I bet you are wondering how do we talk about it. There are a few things scientists, theorists, and doctors can agree on, which is what we will focus on today.
How Motivation Works
If you recall from my very first post, Mental Health and the Brain: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) the limbic system is large and in charge of our emotional parts of our brains. When it comes to knowing what we want (or avoiding what we don’t want), that darn amygdala reins supreme. It has this knack for wanting to be comfortable and safe. By staying comfortable and safe, that darn amygdala (amongst other parts of our brains) reap the reward of a dopamine release.
Seems simple enough, right? It isn’t quite that simple. Our prefrontal cortex has a role in this whole motivation game. The prefrontal cortex helps determine if that dopamine-reward is really worth it. Lets use the example of homework for a moment. How many of us at some point in time looked at our grades to calculate if an assignment was going to make us or break us? I would be lying if I said I didn’t do that at least once a semester! Right there is a great example where we know if we complete the assignment, we get rewarded with a higher grade, but we decide based on different factors (like grades, other classes, other grades in other classes, or really wanting to go to that kegger rather than stay in and do more work) if that grade is worth it.
Now that we have the basic understanding of how motivation works, what about when we have no motivation? How does that exactly work? There have been several studies over the years that point to many different reasons. One of the more commonly accepted reason is that our brains are deficient in dopamine. if you recall from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, dopamine is directly tied to feeling accomplished. Without it, we tend to have little to no motivation, symptoms of depression, and aid in increased feelings of stress. Funny enough, if we are struggling with depression, dopamine is not being produced as often as it should. It leads to a feeling known as anhedonia, or what I call, a case of the “fuck its.” This is when you really don’t care about anything, nothing seems to spark your interest, and you just feel “blah.” Have you been there? Boy, I have!
Another study done in 2019 points to something different aiding in the lack of motivation. Emory University in Georgia completed a study about depression that showed something interesting. Out of the 114 people studied in this depression study, almost all of them presented with a slight inflammation in the brain. The cause of this inflammation is unknown, but it could be from low-grade fevers, fighting off an infection, even in some cases, chronic stress. As a way to keep our bodies functioning, the body shuts down things the body doesn’t need all the time, like dopamine production. This explains why when we aren’t feeling good, we have no motivation to get things done besides sitting on the couch, curled up with our favorite show, and drink ginger ale.
Laziness Versus Lack of Motivation
What about being lazy? Is that the same as not having motivation? The answer is simple: no. When we have lack of motivation, there is no desire or even goal as an outcome. That feeling of anhedonia? That fits perfectly with the lack of motivation. It is important to remember that a lack of motivation is a sign of what is going on around you. You can still be a hard-working person and not have motivation. You can be a perfectionist and end up procrastinating because the passion just isn’t there.
Laziness, on the other hand, serves a purpose. When you think about it, laziness is the intention of avoiding, well, anything. Don’t get me wrong, somedays, you need a lazy day to rejuvenate yourself and relax. If you find yourself on a (very) regular basis trying to take shortcuts in your work, pawning your work off on someone else, or you are doing more of what you want and not what is actually required of you (like licking the cookie dough spoon rather than help actually make the dough), you may have been bitten by the lazy bug.
If you find yourself being more on the lazy side than the unmotivated side, I refer you to my post, Why your Brain Needs Routine. This post will outline for you all you need to know about the importance of a routine to help break the habit of laziness. You can also check out my post, Depression and All That Jazz, to learn about how behavioral activation may be the ticket to breaking out of that lazy spell.
Now if you find yourself on the side of lack of motivation, there are things you can do to help improve your motivation. Now, will it be easy? Nope. Will it be worth the work? Most definitely. It will require some time, patience, and good ol’ practice (oh boy, I said that P word again), but it will help your hippocampus remember your hard work and start telling your prefrontal cortex to release more dopamine.
Coping Skills Alert
When it comes to improving your motivation, there is one skill I teach people all the time: opposite action. This DBT staple is one that challenges your darn amygdala with the power of your prefrontal cortex!
Opposite action may be something you are already familiar with. If you have kids, you know the whole “opposite day” thing. Your kids do the opposite thing of what they are being told to do. Although it can be fun (and annoying), this simple skill helps us with motivation.
It starts with first recognizing what we are feeling. That’s right, identifying and labeling what you are feeling. This means you have to take time to check in with yourself. As you do this, your prefrontal cortex becomes engaged and proactive. What is cool about that is you are no longer responding from your darn amygdala’s emotions response, but from your problem-solving response.
Once you know what you are feeling, you are going to search through your hippocampus to identify an action that elicits the opposite of what you are experiencing. For example, when you’re angry, rather than scream and flip people off, you participate in a kind gesture. There is something neat going on in our brain when we do this:
- You are decreasing the production of the stress hormone, cortisol
- You are resetting your pineal gland to experience less stress
- You are preparing your brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitters and reduce the amount of stress you are feeling
This all makes sense, but how does it work when you are struggling with motivation? Glad you asked! When you engage in something like, a daily routine, or set a SMART goal, you are helping your prefrontal cortex see the benefits of the dopamine release that comes from completing a task. In doing that, the task is then stored as part of your memory in the hippocampus as an activity that brings motivation around.
Thank you so much for taking time to learn about what is going on in your head when your motivation flies out the window. Hopefully this post will motivate you to work towards gaining mental wealth.
- Halber, Deborah (2018). Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do. Retrieved from https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/learning-and-memory/2018/motivation-why-you-do-the-things-you-do-082818
- Kim S. I. (2013). Neuroscientific model of motivational process. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 98. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00098. Retrieved from Neuroscientific Model of Motivational Process (nih.gov)
- Neurohealth Associates (2019). Is your Lack of Motivation Dopamine Deficiency? Retrieved from https://nhahealth.com/is-your-lack-of-motivation-dopamine-deficiency/
- Simpson, J. A., Weiner, E. S. C., & Oxford University Press. (1989). The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Tirronen, Michelle (2020). The Difference Between Laziness, Lack of Motivation, and Depression. Retrieved from The Difference Between Laziness, Lack of Motivation, and Depression — With Chelle
- Treadway, Micheal, et al (2019). Can’t or Won’t? Immunometabolic Constraints on Dopaminergic Drive. Published in Trends of Cognitive Science, Volume 23, Issue 5, p363-448. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30066-X?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS136466131930066X%3Fshowall%3Dtrue