A “Whole Brain” Theory of Human Motivation – Part 2: It’s the Inside That Counts

In a classic Behaviorist experiment, a mouse that has previously been taught to expect food to be dropped into a bowl when it presses a lever, under new conditions will actually continually press the lever when there is a random pattern of outcomes. Sometimes when the lever is pushed one pellet comes out. Sometimes twenty pellets will come out. Most of the time, no pellets come out. Now most of us have unwittingly participated in this identical experiment where we have sat in front of a random intermittent reward generator and we have followed this exact behavior, mindlessly pulling a lever over and over and over again. Maybe for hours at a time. It’s called a slot machine. Instead of pellets, it’s coins. Point proven, we’re just like the mice. Well, not so fast. This same experience also happens to explain the primary reason why a Behaviorist perspective is inadequate to best represent the whole human experience of motivation. Because if one of our friends comes over to us, and points out that we have been sitting at the slot machine for hours, that we put way more money into the machine than what we’ve received in return, and that there are better ways to spend time and money while in Las Vegas, we access very different and more sophisticated parts of our brain – parts of the brain that mice don’t have. Once we shift our mindset, we can immediately halt our lever pulling behavior, soothe our frustrations for having already wasted too much time and money, redirect our intentions, and find a new and better way to spend our time with our friends. In addition, we can form a memory of this experience that might change our future decisions, such as a choice to never put money in a slot machine again.

What is being demonstrated here that is uniquely human? Mental flexibility, higher order analytical thinking, impulse control, prospective analysis, integrated decision making, emotional regulation, social connectedness, empathy and the ability to coordinate and synthesize all these experiences together both into a judgment for the present and a long term memory to help change behavior in the future. A mouse can’t do that. The world’s smartest primate can’t do all of that. But a very young and not even fully developed human being can.

What Behaviorism demonstrates is that human beings can be motivated by external forces – rewards and punishments. This is because there are parts of our brain that are just like those in other mammals – a limbic system that initiates our self-protective emotional responses and a reward circuit that seeks immediate gratification. But what the broader scope of human experience demonstrates is that we can overcome those influences when necessary and willfully direct our own behaviors based on internal resources available to us in our mind. Our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that resides behind that relatively large forehead) has abilities that are uniquely human, and intentionally exerts control and influence over these shared, more “primitive” parts of our brain. For instance, our brains have the capacity to soothe fear, even when we’ve acknowledged that anxiety is an appropriate response for a potentially dangerous situation. This is what allows a firefighter or soldier to do their duty. We also have the ability to accurately project into the future, looking at the various possible outcomes of decisions we make in the present. We have a large degree of impulse control that allows us to delay gratification, and coordinating with our future perspective we can convince ourselves that better things are in store if we can just wait. This is what allows us to plant crops for next season, build cities, or save for retirement. Much of our brain capacity is designed for social connectedness, which allows us to not only guess what is going on with others through our intellect, but truly empathize and experience with others their internal states. This in turn diffuses our experience to include the needs of others. Connecting this ability with our future sense, we may even consider the needs of others that don’t even affect our present living, such as a conscientiousness regarding how we manage our planet’s resources.

In a different way, Psychoanalytic theory also describes motivation as coming from within, but because much of this theory was formulated examining the flaws of human behavior, it is seen as an internal struggle between opposing forces rather than mental collaboration. Perhaps because Freud himself was a physician, and not unlike modern medicine, there is a focus on illness or dysfunction in his theory – neuroses, mental illness, maladaptive coping mechanisms. I remember in residency when I was learning about “defense mechanisms” (the primary work of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna Freud), that the list for unhealthy coping strategies was very long, and the number of healthy strategies you could count on one hand. What was and is very insightful about Psychoanalytic Theory is the link between subconscious memories, anxiety, and protection from self-harm. Looking at the different parts of our brain, we now understand that implicit memories (memories that we don’t have a conscious sense of remembering) are stored in our amygdala, the same organ in the limbic system that initiates our fear response. Anxiety is a very specific response to perceived threats of danger, and is designed to get us out of harm’s way. In other words, the anatomical and functional associations within the limbic system parallel the observations of the Psychoanalysts.

Though many of Freud’s specific theories have since been discredited, what remains as truly influential in terms of our accurate understanding of human behavior is the insight that old memories from our childhood that we are not aware of continue to affect our beliefs and behaviors throughout our adulthood. Unlike strict Behaviorism, a psychodynamic perspective includes the influence of our beliefs and interpretation of experiences upon our conscious choices or unconscious impulses, determining how we act to reconcile the tensions within our selves. Though Freud and the subsequent divergent psychoanalytic schools did not feel the need for their ideas to be studied with scientific and academic rigor, this core insight of his has since been validated from many different subsets of psychological research including in the fields of Attachment Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Positive Psychology and emotions research. Even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, typically seen as the opposite of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, integrates the idea that our core beliefs, usually formed in our early life, dictate our present automatic thoughts and behaviors.

But again like Behaviorism, a psychodynamic perspective also only paints a partial picture, focusing on our experiences of disconnect, dysfunction, and maladaptive behavior. Abraham Maslow summed up this perspective while distinguishing his by saying:

“It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy self.”

What Maslow intuitively touched upon was that the sum total of the human experience should not only focus on when things are not going well, but more so upon the ways in which we experience positivity, health, and wellbeing. In Part 3, we’ll continue to discuss the differences between external and internal motivation, specifically looking at how developing internal motivation leads to sustainable growth and healthiness, and how externally motivating strategies ultimately force limits on what we are capable of accomplishing.

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