The Neuroscience of Motivation and How to Improve It

Motivation can be a hard thing to come by. Whether at home, at school or at work, most of us have been in a situation where we know exactly what to do but lack the mental power to do it. We live in a world where the constant hype and bustle makes us accustomed to hasty decisions, to inflate our working hours to meet our ever-growing ambitions, and to feel like another cog in the machine of society. All of this can critically undermine our willpower, creating unprecedented deficits in our motivation to learn, study and work to a standard that our society defines appropriate. Without motivation, everything can seem inherently absurd and pointless. This invigorating force enables you to act, whether it is to get out of bed or to sign the much-awaited contract that will shape the rest of your career.

In recent years, there has been increasing interest towards understanding the biological mechanisms that fuel our motivation. Dopamine has emerged as a key chemical involved in almost every aspect of motivation and it is now clear that motivation can be tracked down to a few, circumscribed regions of the brain. Like every other neurotransmitter, dopamine conveys its signal by passing from one neuron to bind to receptors on the next. But which route does dopamine take in the brain to energize your thoughts?

It took many years of hard work and willpower (thus much dopamine used along the way) to identify what scientists now call the mesolimbic pathway, otherwise known as a neuronal circuit that connects the middle of the brain (midbrain) to its outermost region (cerebral cortex). One group of neurons that generates this neurotransmitter is located in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), where they project to the nucleus accumbens as well as other ‘limbic’ regions – these are areas of the brain that regulate your emotional responses and include the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex and septum. While a nuanced picture of how these regions interact with each other is still missing, experts agree that dopamine is what tips the balance between spending an afternoon on your couch ruminating over your lack of exercise or going to the gym.

“While these studies offer valuable insights into how dopamine gets you out of bed, it is important to note that most studies were carried out in rodents.”

The earliest experiments linking dopamine to motivation trace their roots back to the early 1950s when scientist Dr. James Olds discovered that electrical stimulation of the middle of the brain caused rats to repeat a given reward-seeking behavior [1]. The idea that this effect could be mediated by dopamine was later formalized by Dr. Roy Wise, whose experiments demonstrated that low levels of dopamine in an animal’s brain reduce its motivation to act and execute well-learned behaviors to obtain food, water or sexual contact [2]. These findings were thought to suggest that dopamine regulates our ability to perceive pleasure and reward, a theory that rapidly found its way into the popular culture. Moreover, in a series of experiments, a group of researchers at The University of Connecticut discovered that when animals are given a choice between a high-value reward that requires much effort and a low-value-reward that requires little effort, the difference in their choice may lie in the brain’s dopamine levels. Artificial manipulation of dopamine showed that animals with lower levels of dopamine opt for the low-value, easier-to-obtain reward whereas animals with higher levels of brain dopamine would show increased motivation to work harder to obtain the high-value reward [3].

While these studies offer valuable insights into how dopamine gets you out of bed, it is important to note that most studies were carried out in rodents. In the attempt to expand these findings to other species, scientists at Stanford University measured dopamine levels in some of the most laborious animals on the planet: ants. A new study published in the journal iScience indicates that when ants are given dopamine, they exhibit increased motivation to leave their nest and to start their foraging activity; this was not seen in ants given a control substance [4]. The authors of this study interpreted these findings as evidence that dopamine can influence a forager’s evaluation of environmental stimuli as well as of its own physiological state. Essentially, increased dopamine signaling may alter the animal’s perception of its own physiological readiness to forage by overriding negative cues that regulate this evolutionary conserved behavior. Long story short, dopamine juices you up.

But where does dopamine act in the brain to exert its effects? Consensus revolves around the idea that when dopamine travels from the VTA towards its targets in the brain, it bumps into a structure called the nucleus accumbens. Think of it as your personal coach. High levels of dopamine in this area will encourage you to tick every box of your to-do list, whereas low levels will leave you sprawling in your bed.

“…while enhancing your brain’s dopamine content can have positive effects on your motivation, the effects could vary depending on where dopamine is increased.”

So what can we do to improve our motivation? Is it enough to crank up our brain’s dopamine levels? Quite the opposite. Scientists at Vanderbilt University demonstrated that while high levels of dopamine in known motivational centers can enhance your willingness to work hard for a reward, high levels of dopamine are also found in the brains of people that show reduced motivation to work, just in a different part of the brain called the insula [5]. This finding suggests that while enhancing your brain’s dopamine content can have positive effects on your motivation, the effects could vary depending on where dopamine is increased. Similarly, a new study published in the journal Neuron indicates that dopamine is also released into the nucleus accumbens in response to unpleasurable experiences, adding to the notion that this transmitter can function as a double-edged sword in the brain [6].

How can we hack this system? Train your brain. Researchers suggest that the human brain can be trained to create the right dopamine environment. One way to do this is by anticipating reward. For example, visualize the completion of a project and embrace the perceived reward. Using brain imaging techniques, such as MRI, neuroscientists have found that reward information is processed in an area of your brain called the prefrontal cortex and that this area interacts directly with the nucleus accumbens and VTA to trigger motivated behavior [7]. Therefore, anticipated reward can directly influence our willingness to work by activating key brain motivation centers.

Ultimately, while neuroscience certainly helps to hack our biological constraints, we shall not forget that old-school self-discipline and determination are two of the most powerful forces to boost your motivation. Much research is needed to fully understand the complex biological mechanisms that generate and maintain our willpower. But, in the meantime, passion and perseverance into whatever you are doing will probably get your dopamine flowing. The rest will follow.


Have you ever tried training your brain to try and improve your motivation? Let us know in the comments below!

A sleeping brain on the left versus a brain lifting weights on the right. Illustrated by Rajamani Selvam.

— Written by Marco Travaglio. Illustrated by Rajamani Selvam.

  1. Olds, J., (1956). Runway and maze behavior controlled by basomedial forebrain stimulation in the rat, Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 49:507–12.
  2. Wise R.A. and Schwartz H.V, (1981). Pimozide attenuates acquisition of lever pressing for food in rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behaviour, 15, 655–656 (1981).
  3. Salamone J.D., (2009). Dopamine, effort, and decision making: theoretical comment on Bardgett et al., Behavioural Neuroscience, 123(2):463-7.
  4. Friedman D.A., Pilko A., Skowronska-Krawczyk D., et al., (2018). The role of dopamine in the collective regulation of foraging in harvester ants, iScience, 8:283-294.
  5. Treadway MT, Buckholtz JW, Cowan RL, et al., (2012) Dopaminergic mechanisms of individual differences in human effort-based decision-making. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(18): 6170–6176.
  6. de Jong J.W., Afjei S.A., Dorocic I.P. et al., (2018). A neural circuit mechanism for encoding aversive stimuli in the mesolimbic dopamine system, Neuron,
  7. Ballard I.C., Murty V.P., Carter R.M., et al (2011). Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex drives mesolimbic dopaminergic regions to initiate motivated behaviour, The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(28), 10340-6.

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Marco Travaglio

Marco Travaglio is currently pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at The University of Cambridge. His research aims to generate novel mechanistic insights into the selective vulnerability of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s disease. His project involves the use of both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cell based model systems to study the onset of the disease and its subsequent pathological manifestations. He received his MSci in Neuroscience from the University of Nottingham.