You have built in reward circuits that prompt you to start moving and keep moving toward desired outcomes in life. This article will help you understand the neurobiological mechanisms that govern your behaviour and how you can utilize it to your benefit.

These circuits reward you if you participate in behaviour that leads towards wellness, adaptation and survival. It also punishes behaviour that doesn’t.

We are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This helps us survive and has done so for millennia. This reward system works on internal cues as well as external cues. Internally the brain and nervous system informs you when you are moving in the right direction and getting closer to your goal. Externally when you catch prey, find berries, water, shelter or a partner (in other words achieve your goal), that is your reward. In both cases your levels of dopamine are elevated, this makes you feel good and you keep moving towards your goal, which leads to reward and survival. This behaviour is learned and repeated.

Neuro-chemically we have two reward systems in place and here follows a description of each. Please note that these systems are highly complex and this is an over-simplification of the processes.

 

 

Oxytocin molecule
Dopamine molecule

 

 

 

1.The serotonin-oxytocin system

These neuromodulators (neurotransmitters) are secreted when we experience:

  • Gratitude
  • Touch
  • Comfort
  • Giving and receiving affection/love

And other things that make you feel good in the present; the here and the now, things you already have and appreciate. When serotonin or oxytocin is secreted it makes us feel good.

This system is very important and you need to tap into it, however in this article I will mainly focus on the second one.

 

2.The dopaminergic system

This neuromodulator is involved with driving behaviour. Activating the dopamine reward system happens by being in pursuit of any external outcome or goal. Dopamine plays an important role in the neuronal regulation of motivation, reward, voluntary movements, cognitive processes and addiction.

Dopamine motivates future action in the pursuit of new goals and provides the energy, concentration and application required. Each of us has our own unique areas of interest or goals, which we pursue to enhance personal gratification.

Dopamine is also present in the motor control areas of the brain. Every time you move physically neurons signal each other with dopamine.

To summarize, dopamine is involved with:

  • Reward
  • Motivation
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Attention
  • Calmness
  • Clarity
  • Reason

 

Conditions for enhancing dopamine secretion and the achieving of maximal gratification include:

  • A sense of purpose
  • Task engagement and task mastery
  • Ongoing achievement (anticipate and un-anticipated)
  • Progress or forward motion
  • Self-efficacy (belief in your ability to bring about change)
  • Autonomy (self-regulation)
  • Reward gratification (goal achievement)

 

If dopamine levels are chronically low, the brain will generate action known to elevate levels of dopamine. These include:

  • Eating
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Caffeine
  • Exercise/movement
  • Sexual activity
  • Drugs
  • Prescription medicine
  • Gambling
  • Social media

 

Can you see why these activities are so often associated with addictive behaviour? Dopamine neurons are at the root of addictions to drugs, food, and gambling. We know that dopamine mechanisms are over stimulated by cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, nicotine, and alcohol. These substances hijack and amplify the neuronal systems that exist for processing natural rewards. We also know that food and gambling, with their strong sensory stimulation and prospect of large gains, activate and exaggerate dopamine-rich brain areas.

Another important role of dopamine is to suppress the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, panic and rage (the fear-anger circuit).

Adrenaline and noradrenaline are hormones associated with stress and the fight-or-flight response. This fulfills a positive role when acute stress prompts us to take action towards or away from something.

Dopamine in conjunction with the correct ratio of adrenaline brings about:

  • Optimal performance – physical and mental
  • Neuroplasticity – adaptation of the brain due environmental changes
  • Hippocampal function – stress buffering

 

However, this can also be negative when stress is chronic and adrenaline levels remain high and we take no action. High levels of adrenaline suppress our reasoning ability (pre-frontal cortex function) as well as the secretion of dopamine.

 

The reward circuit and the fear-anger circuit work in opposition to each other. The one suppresses the other. So when the reward circuit is compromised in terms of function, the fear-anger circuit (amygdala) rages unchecked, producing large amounts of adrenaline-noradrenaline. And so the cycle is perpetuated, keeping us in a hopeless-helpless state that often leads to quitting or giving up. Although some adrenaline is absolutely essential in getting you to take action, an overstimulation of this hormone will eventually make you negative and exhausted. Dopamine will suppress those negative feelings of burnout and buffer the high adrenaline.

Think of these hormones and neuromodulators as your neural currency. You want to ensure that you keep on filling our neural bank account by replacing your dopamine levels so that you can tap into the reserves to stay motivated, focused, energized and resilient, regardless of how long it takes to achieve your goals. If you don’t replenish dopamine, you will lose your drive and experience burnout.

This highly complex and adaptive process is governed by your autonomic nervous system. This unconscious process drives and modulates behaviour and is to a large degree responsible for the outcomes you achieve.

It often takes months, years or even decades before you receive the external reward that you are working towards. Therefore you cannot only wait for the dopamine release that comes with the achievement of our goals, you need to understand how to secrete dopamine even if there are no external rewards forthcoming. For every step in the right direction, you need to experience internal reward. This will keep you moving in the right direction, keep you energized and prevent burnout in spite of the absence of external reward be it social recognition, a promotion, your goal weight, a prize or whatever it may be.

Successful people in all areas of life have figured out how to stay motivated in spite of extreme adversity. They have figured out how to manually operate their reward system even thought this mostly happens outside of awareness.

 

Leading neuroscientists like Dr. Andrew Huberman and Dr. Ian Weinberg have uncovered how these mechanisms operate. And now we can tap into this knowledge for our benefit if we choose to.

Here are a few ways you can learn to subjectively manage and control your levels of motivation by influencing dopamine production and secretion.

 

 

 

Subjective secretion of dopamine

Acknowledging you are on the right path and in motion

 

 

As mentioned we activate the dopamine reward system by being in pursuit of any outcome or goal. It is the pursuit, the process of working towards a goal that activates the reward circuits of the brain, as well as the achievement thereof.

The ability to subjectively amplify that pathway of reward on route to the goal is critical when it comes to long-term challenges that are necessary to overcome. This is when you are in the so-called trenches and when there are no external rewards, even though you are moving in the right direction.

A thriving mindset is the coupling of these reward circuits to the effort process and not just to obtaining of the external reward or the achievement thereof.

By subjectively secreting dopamine on route to an outcome and naturally when you achieve the outcome, you will strengthen the neural pathways. By strengthening these pathways it makes it easier in future to repeat this behaviour. The behaviour of staying in the fight, even when things are not necessarily going your way. Your brain is learning through laying down these new pathways. This then becomes your default pathway or response to adversity.

The way in which you subjectively secrete dopamine is by telling yourself things like:

  • I’m on the right track
  • I am doing the right thing
  • I’m making progress
  • These difficult things I’m doing is in light of a larger purpose

 

When you start doing this, there is essentially no limit on the energy you can expand in order to get where you need to go.

 

 

 

Reward incremental steps (physical and mental) that take you forward

 

The key thing is when you reach each of the self-designated milestones, pause and tell yourself you are headed in the right direction. I haven’t achieved the goal yet but this is the foundation upon which I will lay another foundation, upon which I will lay another foundation etc. These little pulses of dopamine will help you to take all those action steps, week after week, month after month, without the depletion it would normally bring. This way you are replenishing your neural bank account. Dopamine is the currency and you can control the dosing of it.

You are building the capacity for subjective self-reward in your reward circuitry. Something that is actually in the realm of the unconscious.

So great advise when working towards something important in life is:

Taking small steps in the right direction. Do something you know you can complete, and reward that. This ability to control the internal reward schedules is critically important.

  • I ran that 2km
  • I made the right meal choice
  • I wrote that email
  • I made that call

 

Ask yourself: What did you do right today or this week?

Get that positive feedback loop in place. Make it habit.

In the same way you decide to do a run around the block, you can decide to introduce an empowering thought. Empowering or positive thoughts are the equivalent of physical forward action. You can reward yourself for positive and constructive thinking and emoting (feeling). By doing this you are naturally re-enforcing behaviour that promotes emotional intelligence and growth.

  • I stayed calm when…
  • I chose not to get angry with…
  • I did not respond when I was falsely accused…
  • I chose not to feel hurt or rejected when…

 

As soon as you think or feel in a different way about something that would normally cause discomfort or pain in the past, acknowledge that and reward yourself.

You took a mental step in the right direction.

I always bring in the four basic human powers of speaking, behaving, thinking and feeling. Why not get your own internal reward system in place by always acknowledging once you have taken a step in the right direction in these four areas of life? Rather than waiting for the external reward, that may not always be forthcoming.

This requires some higher-level mental awareness but if you are capable of reading this, you are capable of doing that.

If you reward them internally you buffer yourself against the hopeless, helpless and quitting circuits. The adrenaline – noradrenaline circuits.

By doing so you’re building a stronger version of yourself in your brain. That’s building the neural circuits where you can control self-reward and in doing so train yourself to push through consistent effort even if you are not experiencing immediate gratification or external reward. This way you will remain energized and not burnout on a neurochemical level.

Don’t be ridiculous and open a bottle of Champaign every time you completed a task or workout. Just acknowledge that today you did what you could. Of course, that is only if you did.

 

 

Keep moving

 

 

Another adaptive survival trait is to keep moving forward. Forward movement, provided that it’s safe and doesn’t kill you, is how you overcome fear, stress and traumatic events. This activates the brain area that rewards winning/survival behaviour and causes you to keep moving forward. Instead of sitting and being overwhelmed, move forward into action.

This improves your neuro-chemistry through the following mechanism:

When you are moving forward toward something you experience lateral eye movements. The reward circuit rewards forward motion in the face of a threat, as taking action increases likelihood of survival. Moving forward in the face of adversity activates dopamine. So rather than stopping when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed, taking forward physical action will replenish your neural bank account. By taking a walk or going for a run you will experience lateral eye movements, as you are moving through space. This activates the reward circuit and suppresses the amygdala, the fear and anxiety centre of the brain. A fear response, associated with high adrenaline will normally cause your eyes to narrowly focus on the threat and lose all awareness of peripheral vision.

These hardwired survival mechanisms exist in all of us. Forward action drives these circuits. Allowing stress and agitation to prompt you to taking action into forward motion is key for success and achievement of goals. If stress or fear overwhelms and paralyze you, you are less likely to survive. Five hundred years ago, as well as today.

Agitation and stress should not be suppressed through addictive and destructive behaviour, but used to drive you forward. Get yourself out of a slump by just moving forward. This is how you instill behavior that keeps you moving.

This is conditioning of your nervous system.

 

So my advice still stands, keep moving – physically and mentally.

 

 

 

References:

Reward-prediction error

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4826767/

Eye movement deactivation of amygdala

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6596227/

 

 

About the author: Reinhard Korb is a thought leader in the combined application of nutrition, exercise, neuroscience and mindfulness. He helps optimize health, wellness and performance in his clients. As the founder of Thrive, he has facilitated and helped various organisations and individuals actualize their potential and achieve peak performance states. He is a certified Fitness & Nutrition Coach, Meta Coach, Neuro Coach, Stress Management Coach and Wellness Coach
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