What Really Motivates Us

My very best summer reading was Jaak Panksepp’s Archaeology of Mind. This eye-opening description of our mammalian emotional brain is technical, but fresh and new and different than anything I had come upon before. First of all, Dr. Panksepp makes an overwhelming scientific argument for what we all know, but science has had a hard time accepting, that animals have emotions a lot like ours. Panksepp is one of the few people who knows how to tickle rats and listen to their hypersonic shrieks. Besides that, a remarkable neuroscientist, he has spent the last 30 years quietly studying the seven basic emotional systems we all share. Just to be complete, these are (using his convention of capitalization) FEAR, PLAY, CARING, RAGE, PANIC, LUST, and a system called SEEKING that drives us towards our goals. The last one is the one I want to talk about today. (Photo modified from Ray Larabie, Creative commons.)

Some years ago, researchers discovered a “pleasure center” in the brain. If rats, or other animals, were given a button to press that would stimulate a certain part of the brain, they would continue to press until exhausted. Clearly this brain region gave them tremendous pleasure. Of course one imagines that the pleasure in question is some great satisfaction like orgasm or a perfect steak. But no, Panksepp tells us it is the SEEKING system that is being stimulated. What that means is that our greatest pleasure is actually the anticipation of pleasure. In his words, “animals exhibit an intense enthused curiosity about the world” and humans “report a sense of eager anticipation and an enhanced sense of themselves as effective agents who can make things happen in the world.” (p.98)

Actually it isa little more complicated. The same system also motivates us to run for our lives when in danger or attack when threatened. When we are under its influence, we are hyper-aware of our surroundings, intent on any pathway that will lead to our goal. The system is able to team up with the other emotion systems to direct us towards whatever goal we happen to embrace. It might be the pursuit of lust, but it could also be making a killing in the stock market, or running from the bad guys. In other words, the anticipation of reaching our goal is the most pleasurable thing we can experience. As we all know once we get there, there is a moment of great satisfaction, then the pleasure dims rapidly. On the other hand, we also know how to draw the experience out so there are goals and then sub-goals to keep us interested. When cooking, we taste what we have so far and that keeps our interest going till the final product is done. Weight Watchers encourages us to have a good weigh-in so we stay motivated towards our ultimate goal.

When the SEEKING system loses its level of activation, what we experience is a feeling of loss of energy, hope, optimism and capability, in other words, depression. Those blue feelings are an indication that your SEEKING system has been turned off. What turns it off? Running into a brick wall with regard to our goal. When it is obvious that the goal is unreachable, we feel despair. Suddenly, all that pleasurable anticipation melts away into hopelessness.

In the opposite direction, of course, we humans have found artificial ways to stimulate the SEEKING system. Taking stimulant drugs increases the activity of dopamine, which is the main neurotransmitter of this system. This activation gives us a sense of heightened awareness and goal-orientedness. This is why stimulants can help people who have the focusing problems of ADHD. These medications also have a tendency to over-activate the system. What happens then?

Af first, overdriving the system is the same as having a goal that is within reach, then having to wait or deal with a temporary setback. Think about waiting a ski lift line when a tour group is allowed to cut in front of you. I’m sure you can think of more personal examples. As long as we remain optimistic, the system stays activated. With temporary frustration it gets even more activated. At that point we are likely to go in useless circles, for example obsessively checking the “progress monitor” on our computer screen. Kids repeat “are we there, yet?” When the system is highly activated, obsessive, repetitive actions are typical. Ask any cocaine addict about useless obsessive activity.

With an even higher level of overdrive, we begin to perceive connections or cause and effect relationships where they are not. Soon after that, paranoia and psychosis begin. When cocaine addicts become paranoid, their SEEKING system is being overdriven by the drug. This may also explain some cases of other kinds of psychosis. What do the antipsychotic drugs do? They suppress the overactivity of dopamine.

Panksepp explains another phenomenon. When the seeking system is deflated, a small amount of an opiate can reactivate it. Of course this does not take away the danger of taking opioid substances. The addictive potential is not less, but more, along with the consequences of dependence that are causing today’s deadly epidemic. It does explain some of the attraction and it also explains the reports of a few people (usually with addiction problems) who say that opioids are the one thing that makes them feel energized and ready to get up and go in the morning.

Finally, the SEEKING system is the seat of our motivation. When we give our friend (or team) a “pep talk,” we are activating their SEEKING system by enticing them to imagine a goal and see it as really possible. When the SEEKING system and the mental image or idea of the goal join together we find the motivation, energy, focus and feeling of optimism to go after what we want.

Dr. Panksepp’s book is a tour de force. It is technical, but humanly written and will give you an entirely new education about this and the other six emotion systems. Even better, you can support this blog by buying this and other favorite titles from the Bookstore.

Jeffery Smith

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