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What Motivates You?

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

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What Motivates You?

In the background of our lives our brain has very complex programs running continuously. Think of this as the equivalent of essential operating software within digital systems - the program that springs into action as you turn on any device. I find it helps to think of the automatic part of our brain as our default software. This is the most ancient part of our brain, you’ll see it referred to as the primitive, lizard, animal, survival, caveman, ancient or automatic brain. It deals with all the automatic processes that go on in our body - breathing, heart beat, blood pressure, digestion, liver function, kidney function, fighting infection, making blood cells, healing and repair etc etc. Without this part of our brain we wouldn't survive for very long.

However this part of our brain doesn’t necessarily work quietly in the background - it chatters away and communicates with us - incessantly. This is the voice in our head, largely responsible for all the mind chatter and the reason we are often compelled to do the very things we don’t want to do.

Another powerful force at work during our waking hours is the Motivational Triad. This operating system is run largely by the automatic brain and is there to aid our survival and keep us safe. The primitive brain motivational triad comprises of:

Avoid Pain ~ Seek Pleasure ~ Conserve Energy

So for example, when you binge on Netflix, cannot be bothered to go to the gym or prepare the salad, scroll on your phone for another 10 minutes and then another, you play 'just' another game, read another chapter, have another chocolate or give into any form if instant gratification - you are probably simply complying with the demands of your primitive brain. When you find yourself having chewed 1 nail and you want to stop - but can't. Instant Gratification.

Without necessarily realising what is going on, we believe the story our survival brain tells us and just go along with the prompts and subtle nudges it offers us. It’s job is to keep us safe and alive. Keeping us alive back in the stone age, meant eating food when it was plentiful, seeking company, finding safe shelter, sex and warmth. The Motivational Traid of Preserve energy, Seek Pleasure and Avoid Pain made absolute sense as primary human motivations.

As the human species evolved, our brains developed and became bigger. Plonked on top of the primitive brain are the more advanced sections of the modern brain - think of these parts as having all the specific programs (apps) for example - learning a language, mastering a music instrument, creative arts, riding a bike or learning to drive. A brain evolved that could support advanced physical skills, increased cognitive function and memory we can recall. Humans uniquely developed the skill of being able to plan a future and being able to be the watcher of our thoughts / observe ourselves thinking.

When we select something we wish to do in the future and set about learning the skills and taking action to achieve our goals, this is all part of our higher / conscious / modern brain / Pre Frontal Cortex function (PFC). Honouring our dreams and taking action occurs from this more conscious part of our brain.

The Motivational Triad we now need as modern humans, is:

Delay Pleasure ~ Embrace Discomfort ~ Expend Massive Effort Wisely

What we now require looks more like the direct opposite of the primitive motivational triad. It takes work. It takes consciousness. It takes repeated effort. It is not comfortable

So, when you are doing all those things, in the moment, that feel a bit compulsive and you don't understand why  - the reason is that the part of your automatic, less evolved brain is running the show, rather than your evolved brain.


~ We have competing motivations, depending on which part of the brain we allow to be dominant?
~ The default running in the background is always the automatic / primitive brain Motivational Triad of Seek Pleasure, ~ Avoid Pain & Preserve Energy.
~ We never ‘Have To’ comply with our primitive brain - the only thing that it can do is talk to us, urge us, create a   message that 'we will die if we don't' (which is rarely true these days).
~ The primitive brain is not in control of the muscles in our arms, legs or mouth (motor function) that is under the control of our higher, more conscious brain.
~ Our habits become automated and relegated to this part of the brain, which is why they feel so compelling.

I’m no brain expert and I’m representing this in a very simplified way. This view of brain function helps to demystify why humans do what they do.

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