How do you motivate motivation?

It’s no great secret that thinking about motivation doesn’t actually produce motivation. This was recently illustrated in a study published in the journal Neuron. In the study, researchers placed 73 people into an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery). Unlike older EEG technology (electroencephalography) used to detect electrical activity, fMRIs can actually pinpoint parts of the brain that are activated in specific tasks; in this case they focused on the ventral tegmental area—the part of the brain responsible for motivation.

Once placed in the fMRI, researchers asked participants to motivate themselves. If successful, the fMRI would light up the corresponding area of their brain on a neurofeedback monitor—a device used to correlate specific brain activity with external feedback. For most people, creating motivation on cue proved to be a challenging task.

This all changed, however, when participants were allowed to watch their own brain activity in real-time on the neurofeedback monitor. Through the association of the internal feeling with external feedback, participants learned how to activate the ventral tegmental area by matching the thought of motivation with the actual elevated emotion of motivation. In essence, they created a new state of being.

As exhilarating as it was when the individuals made the meter move, they also reported it as fatiguing.

“The experience of the task was very difficult. You’re being asked to generate these intense motivational states for 20 seconds over multiple periods,” said researcher Jeff MacInnes.

What the researchers ultimately found was that through feedback participants could also change their moods to become more focused and eager. Since this action became a learned behavior through the process of repetition, when the researchers removed the feedback meter, participants could still successfully activate that part of their brain. By paying attention to their internal thinking and feeling processes, they affected a change in their external world—and thus affected change in their biology.

Let’s look at it through another lens.

We know motivation happens through association—first we think of something we want to achieve, then we create a correlating emotional state, and then our biochemistry follows. Neurologically speaking, when we turn on the centers in our brain responsible for motivation and inspiration, we are selecting and instructing the very circuitry, already in place in the brain, to become motivated.

If we have truly learned this action and can thus reproduce the experience on command, then we have successfully assembled a new set of neuro architecture­­—the hardware of the brain. When we repeatedly fire and wire new pathways through pre-existing circuits of the brain, we are laying down new byways across our brain by which information can travel. Through repetition, when information continuously travels across these byways, it enriches and cements the brain’s synaptic connections and thus reinforces the firing and wiring of the network. This causes the network (hardware) to become the means by which the thought (the software) travels, and the whole process becomes more automatic.

Because we’ve created these new neuro highways, through practice and repetition we should be able to turn these centers on by command. This is what we do when we motive ourselves to move into a creative state—we cause the circuits to become more accessible to us when we need to use them again.

In the example of motivation, if you keep practicing this firing and wiring through the mental rehearsal of matching a thought with a correlating feeling, over time you’re going to get pretty good at activating the brain’s motivational centers on command.

Obviously this isn’t just limited to motivation; this can be applied to any behavior you want to change or create—exercise, eating habits, addictions, and so on. But when it comes time to change yourself or your life, just thinking about it isn’t going to do much unless the thought is combined with some type of inspiration or motivation.

It’s true that the more you can master these elevated states, the easier it will be for your behaviors to match your intentions. Hence, the next time your thinking about doing something great, make sure you put down the remote control down, turn off your computer or smart phone, and become that feeling of empowerment. You’re going to be surprised where it takes you over time.

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