Motivation Science

Since motivation is often a result of your thought processes, it should come as no surprise that it is closely linked to certain functions of your brain. Your brain’s reward centers — the areas responsible for sensations of pleasure — provide natural reinforcement and future motivation for certain behaviors. Motivation and cognition are closely linked, as well; cognition, which is the ability to think clearly and plan well, can be enhanced by motivation. Motivation techniques exist to help you use these two brain pathways to accomplish your goals.

Reward-Based Motivation

Your brain rewards you with pleasure when you do something crucial to your survival, such as eating a good meal, or the survival of the species, such as having sexual intercourse. You sense pleasure when your brain releases a neurochemical called dopamine, along with others, in response to these self-promoting actions.

Memories then form in your brain to associate items — such as a piece of chocolate cake or a fresh strawberry — with the pleasure they cause. Hence, the next time you see a piece of chocolate cake or a strawberry, you experience the urge to eat it. This is motivation. Motivation encourages you to perform pleasurable actions repeatedly. This is evolution’s way of steering humans, and other animals, toward behaviors that promote survival.

Motivation and Cognition

Motivation causes you to focus on a certain goal. For example, a salesperson offered a special monetary reward for making a specific number of sales in a week will likely focus intensely on strategies to meet that number. This happens because the brain links motivation and cognition to increase the likelihood that the goal will be achieved. Research carried out at Washington University in St. Louis (2010) suggests that the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located just behind and above your left eyebrow, is the area of the brain that recognizes a potential reward and then focuses all your attention and problem solving skills on the process of obtaining that reward.

Motivation Techniques

You can use the science of motivation to devise several motivation techniques to help you achieve your goals. Do this by:

  • Rewarding small steps toward a major goal. Giving yourself small rewards every step of the way toward your goal will help ensure your motivation stays high and your focus sharp. Just don’t make the rewards counter-productive to your goal, like rewarding yourself with cake after a long workout.
  • Taking the most enjoyable route toward your goal. This is particularly useful with a goal like losing weight. Which do you enjoy more, playing tennis with a friend or running on a treadmill? Choose the option that gives you the most pleasure; it will become a reward in itself and keep you motivated.
  • Utilizing periods of high motivation. Regardless of your overall goal, sometimes you will feel more naturally motivated, or “in the mood,” to pursue it. Your focus and problem solving skills will be at their best when you feel highly motivated, so take advantage of these times whenever possible.


Genetic Science Learning Center. (2010). Natural reward pathways exist in the brain. Retrieved September 16, 2010 from

Washington University Newsroom. (2010). Brain network links cognition, motivation. Retrieved September 16, 2010 from