science of motivation

The Neuroscience of Motivation and How to Increase Motivation

I’m sure everyone here is familiar with how hard it is to get work done when you’re feeling unmotivated. Call it laziness, procrastination or what have you, when motivation is lacking, work simply can’t be done. It’s easy to write off a lack of motivation as an excuse to partake in laziness, but the cause of our motivation (or lack thereof) is largely a part of brain anatomy and chemistry. And the good news is, if you’re struggling to stay motivated, you can train your brain to do better.

Let’s take a journey into the human mind and examine the neuroscience of motivation. By understanding how our brain processes and regulates our motivation, we can create better habits that enhance our productivity and foster an invigorating, positive work environment.

The Motivated Brain

Dean Griffiths, founder & CEO of Energy Fusion, will walk us through the center of motivation in our brain: the amygdala.

“Within our brains we have an emotionally sensitive switching station, called the amygdala, which lies deep within the limbic system. In the absence of high stress or fear, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC’s role then is to turn that information into long-term memory or process it through the cognitive and emotional control networks of the higher functions within our brain. That then allows us to either respond or ignore it.”

According to Griffiths, the reflective brain response that spurs motivation cannot take place during high-stress emotional states. And wouldn’t you know it, both frustration and boredom are both associated with high stress levels within the amygdala.

Inside the Brain of a Slacker

Motivation and stress don’t go hand-in-hand; that much we know. But what about those people who regularly demonstrate either higher-than-average or lower-than-average levels of motivation? A study at Vanderbilt University sought to discover just that.

In the study, scientists mapped out the brains of both “go-getters” and self-proclaimed “slackers”. The study revealed that the so-called “go-getters”, who were generally willing to work hard for rewards, had high dopamine levels both in their prefrontal cortexes and in their striatum, which are both areas linked to motivation and rewards. As for the “slackers”, dopamine was only find in the anterior insula, the part of the brain that is associated with emotion and risk perception.

Why Motivation Fluctuates

Motivation levels correlated to two things: the perceived difficulty of the task at hand and the perceived reward that will come from achieving that task. When the reward isn’t notable, motivation will be lower. Motivation will also be lower if the task is perceived to be very difficult.

So how do we override how our brain processes tasks to increase our levels of motivation? There are a few ways.

How to Increase Your Motivation

1. Set Achievable Goals

Because our motivation levels are tied to the perceived difficulty of a task, the first thing that you can do to increase motivation is to break down your given task into more manageable chunks.

2. Set Rewards for Yourself

Second, you want to increase the rewards at stake. For each small task, reward yourself with something small: a sweet treat, a cup of coffee or even a funny YouTube video. Also set a larger reward for yourself when the entire large task is completed. Having a proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” will help your brain to stay motivated so you can keep on track.

3. Train Your Brain

How we talk to ourselves matters, especially when it comes to motivation. As management coach Jon Pratlett notes, your brain reacts differently when you say “I am…” as opposed to “I feel…”:

“Research suggests that when our brain’s fight/flight response is activated and we become aware of it, saying to ourselves ‘I am angry,’ ‘I’m frustrated’, or ‘I’m sad’ is only likely to perpetuate the threate response.”

This is because when you make an “I am” statement, you are making a statement about your identity, which implies permanence. On the other hand, making “I feel” statements underscore the idea that what you feel in that moment is tied to a fleeting emotion rather than a personal state.

So train your brain to be motivated with positive self-talk. Say “I am motivated” as opposed to “I feel motivated”, and reap the benefits of a motivated identity.


When it comes to motivation, your mindset matters. The more you tell yourself that the task at hand will be boring or difficult, the more your brain sets out to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. By changing your mindset and working with, rather than against the way your brain naturally motivates your actions, you can revitalize your work habits and be more motivated all around.


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