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How to engage the brain as a motivation engine

Our understanding of the brain needs to be regularly updated to avoid mistaken assumptions about how best to harness its capability. For example, it might help to look at some myths around dopamine and ‘flow state’.

You may relate to this example. When we think about taking on a tough challenge – like a concentrated piece of work, a brutal workout or a challenging conversation – we encounter a familiar feeling.

This feeling appears as slight agitation or stress, possibly confusion. This is because the early stage of hard work engages the norepinephrine system in our brain. This creates that slight agitated feeling.

Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter which, in concert with adrenaline, activates our heart-rate, blood pressure and metabolism. It is useful for increasing alertness and attention before taking on some work. This happens before reaching any reward phase.

People over-exaggerate the need for ‘flow state’, in other words the need to ‘be in the zone’, i.e. be fully immersed in a mental state. In fact, the key part of hard work is focus – for example the effort needed to push into that initial agitation phase.

Focus and reward are internally controlled. When we are heading in the right direction, and the dopamine kicks in, effort starts to be rewarded. The work comes before the joy. When the mind is orientated towards focus and work, the circuits involved are marked for action and reward, as the activity begins. This system helps tighten focus, energy and attention on the topic.

Dopamine is released as we start focusing on the task, even before it is finished. It serves as a reward, indicating that we are on the right track in achieving our goal. This release of dopamine stops the norepinephrine getting too high, which can trigger our quit response.

The reward we experience from the dopamine in our brain helps to maintain energy and sustain action towards the goal, buffering the quit response.

External rewards do not work on the brain. The brain system responds to answers to questions like 'Why am I doing this?' Rather than rewarding completed endeavour, the brain rewards ongoing progress.

This is a key example of how developments in our understanding of neurochemistry can help us relate to our brain as a motivation engine. Our everyday, popular understanding of the brain is often out of date, sometimes because it is years behind the science. New research helps to update common perceptions of how the brain functions, making it easier to perceive how its systems operate.

Just as our phones need regular software updates to avoid bugs and crashes, our understanding of our own biological mechanisms need to be updated with scientific discoveries. That way, we might find better ways of working with our brain, rather than against it, as we might have done in the past.

Tom Cassidy is head of leadership and executive coaching at Working Voices.