Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Fickle Nature of Motivation: A Brain Chemistry Discussion

Motivation is a fickle mistress. In the last few posts, I wrote about the nature of high-functioning depression. In my experiences, a complete and total lack of motivation to do anything and everything is the predominant symptom I experience. 

Over the last decade or so, I've spent a great deal of time trying to manage this lack of motivation. I started by trying to fight it. You know, learning ways to force myself to do the shit I didn't want to do. I discovered that these forced behaviors, while possible, are absolutely draining. When I'm in a depressed state, I cut back activities to the bare minimum. If it ain't necessary, I ain't doin' it. Eventually I learned it was far better to figure out a) the antecedents to the depressive state and avoid those and b) behaviors that will shorten the depressive state than it was to try to will myself to keep doing "business as usual." 

So what's going on here?

The Biological Basis for Motivation

Based on our best hypotheses to date, motivation is primarily controlled by two neurotransmitters in your brain - dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine seems to serve as the "reward" our brain gives itself when we engage in particular behaviors. In short, it's responsible for the feeling of "enjoyment" we get from doing the shit we enjoy. It should be noted this doesn't always mean we get rewarded for "pleasurable" behaviors like sex, drugs, and blue grass. It's entirely possible to be "rewarded" for experiencing what appears to be "bad" shit. That's the nature of masochism. 

Anyway, serotonin seems to play a role in the cost/benefit analysis we do before engaging in any behavior. The lower the levels of serotonin, the more "cost" we perceive, ergo the less likely we will engage in any given behavior. 

Note the uncertainty in tone of those last two paragraphs. That's intentional. The role of both neurotransmitters isn't fully understood, nor are the mechanisms by which they work. And there may be other neurotransmitters at play we haven't discovered yet. The brain's still kind of a mystery that way. Keep that in mind. 

In theory, "depression" occurs when we have a deficiency in one or both of these neurotransmitters. Different symptoms seem to occur with different variations in each neurotransmitter, including a lack of motivation. This is why it's exceptionally difficult if not impossible to "think" yourself out of depression. The brain chemistry controls cognition (what you think about) much more than cognition affects brain chemistry (but that can and does happen.)

So How Can We Use This Information?

If we frame "motivation" as a function of brain chemistry, all we have to do is learn what affects said chemistry. We could take the drug route and do a few lines of coke (to release dopamine) and pop a few ecstasy pills (to release serotonin), but that process is unpredictable, temporary, prone to habituation (we develop a tolerance), and kinda addictive.

A safer, sustainable solution is to do what I mentioned earlier. If you're feeling unmotivated, you're experiencing low levels of one or both neurotransmitters, so you need to figure out what caused the drop in the first place and what will cause them to return to normal levels (thus regaining motivation.) That usually takes a good deal of experimentation, but you'll gain the ability to control your motivation levels far more than you would without the experimentation. 

For me, the preventative steps I take are regular exercise, a relatively clean diet, lots o' sex, regular exposure to sunshine, and having some goal to work towards. If I can maintain all of these reliably, I never really experience a lack of motivation. Unfortunately, sometimes you get injured. Or you can't afford a clean diet. Or you get an especially cloudy winter. Shit happens. When it does, I have to take curative measures. 

The goal of curative measures is to get out of the funk I'm in. The same basic rules apply. Exercise. Eat clean. Get out in the sun. Have even more sex. 

Of course, the problem with taking curative steps is... you guessed it - a lack of motivation. Because it can be almost impossible to will myself to do any of these enough to actually eliminate the problem, I need a few passive options, too. Since social interactions are especially taxing during the low-motivation depressive states, social isolation works wonders. So does low-level exercise like walking. Same deal with sun exposure. The absolute perfect ideal - going for long walks alone in the sunshine. Unfortunately, I'm currently in a situation where I'm surrounded by people all the time. Getting complete social isolation would require about an hour of driving to get to the desert east of San Diego. For me, this is one of the things that makes this a somewhat difficult place to live. Luckily the ample sunshine works as a powerful preventative measure.

In the next post, I'll talk about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and the effects each has on motivation. Teaser - this is the reason we get sick of our jobs.

Stay tuned!