There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain — about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way. These cells communicate with each other via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. One specific neurotransmitter is called dopamine.
Common knowledge relates dopamine to pleasure and this is true. Dopamine is the brain's pleasure chemical. But that is not the entire story.
In studies of dopamine, researchers began noticing peculiar phenomena. They saw spikes in dopamine during moments of high stress. Dopamine rose in the case of soldiers with PTSD who heard gunfire. Stress and gunfire are not pleasurable phenomena, yet there dopamine was. What gives? It was clear that dopamine went beyond mere pleasure. Dopamine's true effect may be motivation. Dopamine performs its task before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something negative.
Studies confirm the motivation-dopamine link in a number of interesting ways. Behaviorial neuroscientist John Salamone confirmed the link in an animal study on rats who were given the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward.
Dopamine enables us to plan ahead and resist impulses so we can achieve our goals. It gives us that “I did it!” lift when we accomplish what we set out to do. It makes us competitive and provides the thrill of the chase in all aspects of life — business, sports, and love.
The next time you lack motivation, try this: Break your indomitable task into smaller goals and trust that dopamine will build up as you achieve your way through to the end.