The link between motivation and biochemistry allows for lifelong learning

Image by Mozlaze/ Pixabay

We are motivated for a new challenge, when we feel like the task will be manageable yet demanding. Thoughts, perceptions, and assessments cause the release of molecules in the brain, which in turn trigger emotions. If these emotions are positive, this creates the feeling of motivation. We can control this feeling consciously and thereby help our self to learn new skills throughout our lifetime, explained brain researcher Prof. Martin Korte from TU Braunschweig on January 5, 2020 in the Podcast Wissen.

How does the brain transform experiences into emotions?

When we are faced with a task that we consider feasible, dopamine is released in the brain, even before we begin to work. This hormone creates a euphoric mood, which gives us a push, a jump start, so to say. The same molecule also makes us look forward to a holiday or Christmas gifts. Therefore, dopamine is also called the anticipation-hormone. It furthermore stimulates nerve cells and thereby promotes concentration and long-term memory, thus learning.

Negative feelings, on the other hand, have negative impact on our brain. If we are overwhelmed, the kidney releases stress hormones, just from thinking about starting the task. These hormones enter the blood and, amongst other things, reduce our ability to concentrate. This means that we are less able to complete a task if we believe in advance that we cannot accomplish it. It is furthermore less likely that we start at all if we assume failure is inevitable.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” An old saying, refuted by new research.

Once we have started to study our Spanish vocabulary or practice the guitar, we experience a sense of achievement, which activates a very specific area of ​​the brain: the so-called nucleus accumbens. This area of ​​the brain releases morphine- and opium-like substances, that make us feel satisfied. The nucleus accumbens rewards us every time we learn something new, perform a task, solve a problem, or generally have positive experiences. These substances not only make us feel good, but also result in the formation of positive memories. This makes it easier for us to motivate ourselves for the same task in the future, since the brain knows that it can receive the cocktail of dopamine, morphine, and opioids with acceptable effort.

The brain doesn’t reward us for achieving a trivial task, we must first overcome a certain challenge. Conversely, negative experiences most likely prevent us from pursuing the task another time in the future. Thus, the chemicals in the brain determine whether we are motivated to try something new, approach a familiar task again, or whether we would rather avoid it all together. This means that motivation is a biochemical process that we depend on for lifelong learning.

How we can influence or own motivation?

Our expectations play an important role in how we perceive and assess a situation. This means that we can influence our level of motivation. First of all, it helps to adjust our expectations, as we tend to set ourselves unachievable goals and give up when we cannot reach them fast enough. If we set ourselves intermediate goals, however, these can be reached with some effort, which makes us feel accomplished. Then we are motivated to pursue the task further and reach our final goal. Furthermore, it helps to have a reason to face a new challenge, to succeed in learning the new skill. Someone, who wants to take guitar lessons to play songs for their grandchildren, will much rather accomplish this, than the person who does it for no reason.

It is furthermore important for the motivation to learn a new skill at a certain age, to accept that somethings may take longer than they used to. It is unreasonable to expect to learn a new language in three weeks anyway, when also as children it took years of practice. Then, the social factor of learning in a group should not be underestimated. Taking part in group activities causes the release of hormones, such as the so-called cuddling hormone oxytocin. These molecules attach to the synapses and promote learning. Thus, one would profit more from a language course than using an app at home.

We all know the feeling of elation when we start a task with motivation. Scientists can explain how this feeling comes about and thus how we can contribute to experiencing it. These scientific findings that link molecules in the brain with motivation furthermore explain why confident people are often more successful. Their positive attitude helps them to face challenges, but also to master them better.

Of course, a child’s brain makes new connections easier and therefore learns without effort. But with a positive attitude and the knowledge on how to influence our brains’ biochemistry we can evoke motivation. Thereby we can learn for a lifetime, even into old age, whether we want to study a new language or learn how to handle smartphones.


Other References:

Robbins, T. W., & Everitt, B. J. (1996). Neurobehavioural mechanisms of reward and motivation. Current opinion in neurobiology6(2), 228-236.

Westbrook, A., & Braver, T. S. (2016). Dopamine does double duty in motivating cognitive effort. Neuron89(4), 695-710.

https://www.wissenschaft.de/umwelt-natur/morphiumrausch-im-gehirn/  18. March 2008

https://www.medicom.de/lebennurbesser/interview-mit-hirnforscher-martin-korte/ 11. April 2018

Published by Katrin Heidemeyer

Katrin Heidemeyer ist Doktorandin im Bereich Biochemie an der Wageningen University and Research. Durch ihre Arbeit möchte sie das Wissen über die Spezifität von Hormon-Signalen in Pflanzen erweitern. Da ihre Interessen über Pflanzenbiologie hinausreichen, schreibt sie in ihrer Freizeit über diverse Themen. Von Ernährung zu Psychologie, der Neugierde sind keine Grenzen gesetzt.

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