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Motivation Module 10:

The Neuroscience of Motivation


Background Information

The neuroscience of motivation studies how the environment and daily events activate specific brain structures and how these are associated with the motivational states that energize, direct, and sustain behavior (Carver & Scheier, 1998). Our evolving understanding of the human brain provides new clues as to what makes specific individuals more motivated than others – whether it be an employee working harder at their job or students engaging more in learning than peers.


The chemical dopamine primarily deals with motivation. Dopamine generates positive and negative motivation depending on where in the brain it is acting. High dopamine levels concentrated in one area of the brain drive individuals to work hard for a reward; high levels in another drive them to reject that effort. This discrepancy is because dopamine is a reward neurotransmitter and conveys what neuroscientists label “motivational salience.” Dopamine transmits signals in response to rewards. It also signals responses to salient, non-rewarding stimuli like stress or aversion. Dopamine motivates us either toward or away from something” (Berridge, 2004, 2018). Dopamine neurons connect distinct brain networks and have distinct roles in motivational control, e.g., supporting brain networks for seeking evaluation and value learning. In contrast, others support orienting, cognition, and general motivation (Bromberg, 2010). 


The cortical brain contains conscious and deliberate motivations, including goals, plans, strategies, values, and beliefs about the self. Some cortical brain structures involve motivation and emotional states (Reeve, 2018). The subcortical brain involves memory, emotion, pleasure, and hormone production. Structures in the cortical and subcortical brain are linked by a network of neural pathways that communicate with each other. As part of the nervous system, these brain structures use neurotransmitters to interact, while the endocrine system relies on hormones such as cortisol, oxytocin, and testosterone important for motivation (Reeve, 2018). Neuroplasticity is the capacity of neural networks in the brain to alter their connections and behavior in reaction to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction (Ceruto, 2018). Measuring motivation includes many approaches, such as observable responses, cognitive responses like the speed of recall or quality of perception, analyzing self-reports of one’s experience, and behavioral measures such as task performance and brain activation.



Set achievable goals by breaking big goals down into a series of smaller, more achievable ones.

Engage in framing. which means folk do not like being told to do something they don’t want to, but when one is enthusiastic about achieving a goal for intrinsic reasons, work becomes enjoyable. Thus, rather than dwell on what one has to do, reframe the task as a goal one wants to achieve.

Given the following list of the subcortical brain structures and how they are involved in motivation and emotional states (Reeve, 2018), engage in discussing this content with teachers and peers for the purpose of becoming familiar with this information.

Reticular formation  -  Regulates arousal, alertness, and the neural process of awakening the brain’s motivational and emotional concerns.


Amygdala -  Detects, learns about, and responds to the stimulus properties of environmental objects, including both threat-eliciting and reward-eliciting associations.


Basal ganglia - Contribute to the motivational invigoration and inhibition

of movement and action.

Ventral striatum - The brain’s reward center.


Ventral tegmental area - Manufactures and releases dopamine that is received by the nucleus accumbens to produce pleasure and liking.


Hypothalamus - Responsive to natural rewards in the regulation of eating, drinking, and mating, and it also regulates both the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems.


Note: The Subcortical Brain Structures List is adapted from Souders, B. (2019, November 5). How to Measure Motivation By Understanding the Science Behind It.

Explore these neuromyths (Macdonald et al, 2017)

  • We use only 10% of the brain You’ve probably heard this statement on several occasions, but the reality is that it has no scientific basis.

  • Each hemisphere has a function.

  • Learning occurs in the first three years of life.

  • Some subjects are more important than others.

  • Learning is more effective in the preferred modality.

Given the following list of the cortical brain structures and how they are involved in motivation and emotion (Reeve, 2018), engage in discussing this content with teachers and peers for the purpose of becoming familiar with this information.


Cortical Brain




The insula  - Monitors bodily states to produce both positive and negative gut-felt feelings, and it also processes feelings associated with risk, uncertainty, intrinsic motivation, empathy, and personal agency.


The prefrontal cortex - Involved in making plans, setting goals, formulating intentions.


Right hemispheric activity - Associated with negative affect and “no-go” avoidance motivation, while left-hemispheric activity is associated with positive affect and “go” approach motivation.


The orbitofrontal cortex - Stores and processes reward-related values of environmental objects and events to formulate preferences and make choices between options.


The ventromedial - Evaluates the unlearned emotional value of basic sensory

prefrontal cortex rewards and internal bodily states and is responsible for emotional control.


The dorsolateral - Evaluates the learned emotional value of environmental

prefrontal cortex events and possible courses of action, and it is responsible for control over urges and risks during the pursuit of long-term goals.


The anterior - Monitors motivational conflicts and resolves those conflicts

cingulate cortex by recruiting other cortical brain structures to exert cognitive control over basic urges and emotions.


Note: The Subcortical Brain Structures List is adapted from Souders, B. (2019, November 5). How to Measure Motivation By Understanding the Science Behind It.



Explain outcome-focused motivation directed at completing a goal (Brehm & Self, 1989; Locke & Latham, 1990; Powers, 1973).

Explain process-focused motivation used during goal pursuit (Higgins et al., 2003; Touré-Tillery & Fishbach, 2012).

Explain goal pursuit involving intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Give an example of each of the following

  1. process of generating motivation
  2. process of maintaining motivation
  3. process of regulating motivation

Solve a matching test item for cortical brain structures and their function

Solve a matching test item for subcortical brain structures and their function.

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