Sunday #19: May 6, 2012 – Seek and Ye Shall Find… Dopamine.

Questions. We all ask them. Of ourselves, of others, of the universe. Often those questions remain unanswered. We pose them, but we get no real responses. Sometimes we answer those questions for ourselves down the road, after we have done some more living and had some more experience. Very rarely do we pose a question and then have the answer land on our dining room table a short time later. But that is precisely what happened to me this week.

In last week’s 52 Sundays post, I posed the question “What Motivates Some People to Push Themselves?” I had no answer, but I wanted one. As a former teacher and a self-labelled motivated person, I wanted to know what makes some people tick and others not only not tick but also not care that they don’t tick. Three days later, my answer appeared right in front of me.

The answer to the question of where inner drive originates is brain chemistry. According to Paul Henderson, in “Study Pins Slacking Off on Brain’s Chemistry in the May 1 Edmonton Journal, a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience finds that there are significant differences in neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in the brains of “go-getters” vs. “slackers.” The study is the first to investigate the chemical basis of motivation. Intrigued, I was motivated to search for more information (readable to a layman like me). I found the information in a Time.com article by Maia Szalavitz called “Your Drive to Compete May Come Down to Dopamine” and a CBS News article by Ryan Jaslow, “Brain’s dopamine may explain why some are ‘slackers’ at work.”

The study results help answer my question about why some people push themselves and others don’t. Scientists asked participants to choose either an easy task for a $1 reward or a difficult task for a $4 reward. The scientists then used a PET-scan, an advanced medical imaging technique, to analyze the participants’ neurochemistry. According to Jaslow’s article, participants “with increased dopamine activity in the brain’s motivational centers – called the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex – tried harder, while those with more dopamine activity in the brain’s insula – an area involved with emotion – were far less motivated.” In other words, the go-getters’ brains rewarded them for their go-getting, but the slackers’ brains rewarded them for their slacking.

According to Michael Treadway, one of the study’s authors, “If you look around at the people you know, yourself included, and think of the people always driven to work hard versus the people who prefer to take it easy, what this study shows is that the range in motivation is in part due to how the dopamine system functions” (quoted in Jaslow’s article) in each person.

So there it is. Brain chemistry explains some of the difference between highly motivated and highly unmotivated people. We all have dopamine in our brains, but motivated people respond to it in one way, and unmotivated people respond to it in another. Finally, understanding emerges from the cloud of question marks.

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that the answer to one question prompts new questions; for me, this is one of those cases. Now that I know that brain chemistry is responsible for differences in motivation, I have new questions. Are these dopamine-based brain chemistry differences genetic? Can a person’s dopamine response and the motivation it creates—or doesn’t create—be changed? Will a go-getter always be a go-getter and a slacker always be a slacker?

Alas, this study does not give me those answers. In fact, as Maia Szalavitz points out, this study “doesn’t prove that these differences in dopamine responsiveness are genetic, nor does it show that they are immutable. It is a small trial and the results need to be replicated.”

Sigh. It looks like I may have to wait some time for the answers to my latest questions.

But that’s OK; I’m motivated enough to wait.

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