Hacking the Neuroscience of Motivation

Motivation plays a crucial role in how we set and attain goals. From the simple determination to drink 3 liters of water a day to the ambition to win an Olympic goal medal, motivation is the driving force behind how hard you work and how long you endure challenges to achieve the desired outcome. More specifically, motivation represents the process of initiating and sustaining goal-directed activities (Cook, 2016). Therefore, understanding the scientific mechanism behind motivation can help us better achieve our goals.  

Dopamine establishes the neurological basis of how the brain perceives motivation and is inseparable in the discussion of motivation. The neurotransmitter molecule, dopamine,  influences the activation of brain pathways involved in motivation, movement, cognition and reward-driven learning. An increased amount of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a region in the basal forebrain, triggers feedback for predicting rewards. Essentially, when the brain recognizes that something important is about to happen, dopamine kicks in (Strasser, 2020). In one study, a team of scientists at Vanderbilt University mapped the brains of “go-getters” and “slackers.” They found that hardworking individuals  exhibited  higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex, two areas known to impact motivation and reward, while the anterior insula, an area of the brain involved in emotion and risk perception, showed higher dopamine levels in procrastinating individuals (Treadway, 2012). Based on this study, high levels of dopamine are associated with hard working behaviors, so mindfully participating in what increases dopamine levels should be helpful in maintaining high levels. This means that doing things that increase dopamine in the brain should help in to increase motivation. Habits like eating more protein, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly all contribute to an increased amount of dopamine and therefore motivation (Journel, 2012; Volkow 2012; Heijnen 2016)  (author last name, year; author last name, year; author last name, year).  

Challenge | Unravelling The Mysteries Of Motivation

Fig. 1 Illustration of where dopamine is most active in “go-getter” brains vs. “slacker” brains

Increasing dopamine offers one way to strengthen motivation, but it requires more than the voluntary efforts as physiological responses vary. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is defined as engaging in an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for the gained incentives or possible consequences. When intrinsically motivated, a person focuses on  the excitement or the challenge entailed rather than the external products, pressures, or rewards (Di Domenico, 2017). This contrasts to someone with an extrinsic motivation who accomplishes a behavior for its instrumental value. To ensure high motivation, the reason behind taking the action must be of intrinsic value in order to persist through the hardships of achieving a goal. 

It is also important to understand how motivation can be influenced in a way where behavior manifests differently according to personality. As personality influences how someone perceives the world, there are certain attributes that make a person more likely to be motivated. In fact, research shows that the Big Five traits of personality (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) are related to a wide range of behaviors, including academic achievement and job performance. In addition, a study in 2008 found that openness and extraversion explained one’s engagement motivation (thinking and desire for self-improvement) and conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness related to achievement motivation (persisting and competing) (Corr, 2013). Avoidance motivation, which is characterized by factors like debilitating anxiety, withdrawing, and disliking school) was associated positively with neuroticism, which is defined as a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings.  Likewise, achievement motivation has been associated positively with conscientiousness and extraversion, and negatively with neuroticism, impulsiveness, and fear of failure. (Corr, 2013) By learning about your personality, you can focus your attention to specific personality traits you have to nurture motivation in a tailored way. 

Fig 2. Visual organization of the five personality traits and the temperament spectrum in each personality

Although personality plays a significant role in how easily motivation is experienced, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist, identified a state that all personalities can experience, called the “flow state.” The “flow state” refers to  an optimal psychological state characterized by the enjoyment of deep absorption in what one is doing and experiencing the intrinsic flow motivates individuals to engage in activities that are conducive to it (Motivation and Flow, 2010). Research on the flow experience has shed light on the phenomenology of intrinsic motivation since Csikszentmihaly first introduced the concept. There are three core enablers that allow someone to be in a flow state: having above average challenges that are matched by the person’s skills, a clear goal, and  immediate and accurate feedback on actions (Motivation and Flow, 2010). Thus, exploring and learning how to achieve the flow state would act as another tool to easily bring about motivation. 

As life is filled with twists and turns, it can be hard to keep up motivation in one’s life, especially when things go wrong. But by learning more about the science behind motivation, there are actions one can take to “hack” their motivation to keep progressing towards the goals and successes one has for their life. 

Edited by Sarah Kim


Cook, D. A., & Artino, A. R. (2016, October). Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories. Medical education. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5113774/. 

Corr, P. J., DeYoung, C. G., & McNaughton, N. (2013, March 5). Motivation and Personality: A Neuropsychological Perspective. Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/spc3.12016. 

Di Domenico, S. I., & Ryan, R. M. (2017, March 24). The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in human neuroscience. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5364176/. 

Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2016, January 7). Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise-A Review. Frontiers in psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4703784/. 

Journel, M., Chaumontet, C., Darcel, N., Fromentin, G., & Tomé, D. (2012, May 1). Brain responses to high-protein diets. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649463/. 

Komarraju, M., Karau, S. J., & Schmeck, R. R. (2008, September 3). Role of the Big Five personality traits in predicting college students’ academic motivation and achievement. Learning and Individual Differences. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1041608008000587#:~:text=Komarraju%20and%20Karau%20(2005)%20found,conscientiousness%2C%20neuroticism%2C%20and%20openness. 

Motivation and Flow: Toward an Understanding of the Dynamics of the Relation in Architecture Students. Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/JRLP.142.5.533-556. 

Strasser, A., Luksys, G., Xin, L., Pessiglione, M., Gruetter, R., & Sandi, C. (2020, July 20). Glutamine-to-glutamate ratio in the nucleus accumbens predicts effort-based motivated performance in humans. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41386-020-0760-6. 

Treadway, M. T., Buckholtz, J. W., Cowan, R. L., Woodward, N. D., Li, R., Ansari, M. S., … Zald, D. H. (2012, May 2). Dopaminergic Mechanisms of Individual Differences in Human Effort-Based Decision-Making. Journal of Neuroscience. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/32/18/6170. 

Volkow, N. D., Tomasi, D., Wang, G.-J., Telang, F., Fowler, J. S., Logan, J., … Ferré, S. Evidence That Sleep Deprivation Downregulates Dopamine D2R in Ventral Striatum in the Human Brain. The Journal of Neuroscience. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3433285/. 

Image References

Annavitals. (2019, May 07). 5 personality traits – infographic. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://blog.adioma.com/5-personality-traits-infographic/

Unraveling the mysteries of motivation. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.psd.gov.sg/challenge/ideas/deep-dive/unravelling-the-mysteries-of-motivation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.