Which came first the chicken or the egg? This is a question that plagues us in all facets of our lives, and all fields of study notwithstanding. Take for example, the field of psychology. It is not uncommon to read about most medical professionals and biologist identify dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain as a primary determinant for how motivated a person is. There is truth to this, for example if you used a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to identify and measure dopamine production in the brain of a healthy person, you will find increased dopamine production and activity in response to the anticipation of a reward.
This then raises the question, is motivation based on genetic factors that predispose people to a certain type of chemical disposition, or does experience in a person’s natural environment, or environment of origin influence the chemical disposition of a person’s brain? Consider this study by Vanderbilt University, where researchers using a PET scan, determined that a person’s willingness to work hard was determined by his or her dopamine levels. The problem I have with this study is that the researchers did not go in depth into why the differences in dopamine levels existed in the first place, they simply measured dopamine activity on certain tasks, drew their conclusions and called it a day.
As a clinician who believes in neuroplasticity, (the brains’s ability to rewire itself based on stimuli), I suggest that the brain’s ability to produce certain levels of dopamine is influenced by the beliefs of the participants. For example, people who believe that they are capable of completing a hard task and earning a reward, are probably most likely to have increased dopamine activity as opposed to people who view themselves as incompetent when it comes to completing difficult tasks. Proof of the brain’s ability to rewire itself can be found in this study where, cocaine addiction, followed by chronic relapses was determined to have been caused by cocaine-induced neuroplasticity changes in the brain. Where chronic abuse of cocaine led to the brain to rewire itself to become dependent on cocaine for motivation.
So if neuroplasticity is true, (which it is) how does one increase their level of dopamine production naturally without resorting to unhealthy habits? One technique would be to visualize the outcome of your goals and embrace the process towards realizing these outcomes. Life in the modern world is more complicated than life in the wilderness, which humans beings originally evolved to thrive in. The reason for this is that the process of stalking and hunting game, foraging for food or cultivating food is more linear and straightforward than finding employment in a high salary paying job. With the latter, not only do you have to be qualified for the job, but you also have to have a good relationship with someone high up in the hierarchy in the industry, not to mention experience. So while hunting for game in the wilderness might require patience, it would be fueled by certainty if you have an understanding of the game you are hunting, such as knowing where to find them. With finding a high paying job, despite your qualifications, you may become intimidated if you were not raised in the same socio-economic background as the people you would need to apply to for the job, and this level of intimidation might reduce your dopamine levels, thus reducing your level of motivation in applying for said high salary job.
Personally, I think motivation is relative, which leads me to suggest that dopamine levels are also relative. For example, for experiences in which I have excelled at, my dopamine levels become increased when faced with a goal to accomplish, versus experiences in which I have had little success at, in which my brain responds by producing reduced levels of dopamine. In following through with the technique mentioned in the previous paragraph, if you are faced with a need to follow through on a goal in which you have little experience in, it becomes a matter of recollecting the best of your previous achievements, regardless of how different that goal was, applying the work ethic you used towards your visualization of success with the new and foreign goal, and following through with faith in yourself.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.