There’s a scene in my “What’s Your Impossible” video where I tap my chest and say, “I don’t have to get motivated to do this. I run from here.”
I should have tapped my head. The heart is where we feel motivation, but the brain is where it happens. It’s all about dope — dopamine, that is.
Dopamine is the brain chemical behind “the pursuit of happiness.” When we think about getting moving on something, dopamine triggers a cost-benefit analysis, and if the perceived reward outweighs the cost, it gets behind the idea. We feel motivated. We get going. But if the ledger comes up short, dopamine settles back on the couch and asks for more Cheetos.
I often experience MS that way — like a Great Big I Don’t Wanna. I usually go work out anyway, and feel better when I’m done, but not always. Sometimes (rarely, thankfully) there’s no feel good reward and it’s just too hard to push through, so I quit early, or don’t go at all.
Norman Doidge explains all this in his profile of John Pepper, the “conscious walker” with Parkinson’s Disease we met last time:
The conventional view is that dopamine is essential for movement, and because people with [Parkinson’s Disease] have too little . . . , they can’t move. But it turns out that dopamine is also essential to “feel” that it is worth making a movement — that is, people need dopamine to feel motivated to move in the first place.
Thus dopamine has at least three characteristics relevant to [Parkinson’s Disease]: first, it enhances motivation to move; then it facilitates and quickens that movement; and finally it neuroplastically strengthens the circuits involved in the movement, so that movement will be easier next time. But if there is no motivation, no movement will occur.
A recent study shows that the “motivation to move” goes awry in [Parkinson’s Disease].
The importance [of this study] for understanding Parkinson’s cannot be underestimated: it is not simply that [Parkinson’s Disease patients] have an inherent inability to move normally and at a normal speed; the motivational component of their motor system is also fundamentally compromised.
Parkinson’s Disease appears in its symptoms as a physical movement disorder, but it has roots that are “cognitive” or “mental,” and is thus as much a mental as a physical disorder.
Which is precisely why it is problematic to teach Parkinson’s patients that the loss of dopamine prevents them from moving! This instruction will only reinforce passive resignation, at the very moment when that attitude needs to be undermined.
This motivational lack is not a product of laziness or apathy or weakness of will. Rather, the brain’s dopamine-based motivation circuit often cannot energize particular movements, even when desired, and this appears as weariness or lassitude.
That John Pepper was able to motivate himself to move, despite limited dopamine, attests to the vital force of his mind and will. But to translate that motivation still required a “neurological” discovery on his part. He still couldn’t do normal, everyday walking, which is automatic and habitual . . . until his conscious walking technique got around this circuit and allowed him to use other circuits.
In other words, by doggedly sticking with his intent to walk, John Pepper has recruited other parts of his brain to help him stay with it.
Knowing about dopamine takes the mystery out of motivation. It also tells us there’s a neuroplastic reward waiting for us if we can somehow defy our Great Big I Don’t Wanna’s and just get moving.