What is Motivation Anyway?

by Tori Throckmorton

ADHD Has a Bad Rep

Despite being one of the most researched psychiatric conditions, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) remains a misunderstood and stigmatized cognitive disorder. When a psychiatrist suggested I had ADHD nine years ago, I rejected the idea out-of-hand. She handed me a questionnaire and I flipped out after reading the first question, “Lose things? NEVER. I FIND things OTHER people have lost!” Emotional dysregulation, anyone?

At the time, I had the perception of ADHD as a behavioral disorder.  So it’s not surprising that my self-talk mirrored common criticisms of ADHD challenges:

“You know what to do, why can’t you just do it?”

“Come on you’ve done this before, it’s not hard.”

“You still haven’t finished X. Why are you so lazy, don’t you care?”

It wasn’t until my youngest sister was diagnosed, five months ago, that I made the effort to understand ADHD.  After a day or two of obsessively researching, I realized that psychiatrist was spot on. To that psychiatrist whose name I’ll likely never remember, I’m sorry for yelling at you…you were right!

Dr. John J. Ratey’s book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, not only taught me the basic neurology of mental health and ADHD, it completely changed the way I think about exercise. This article summarizes his explanation of how our brains get motivated.

Get to Know Your Brain

Dr. Ratey describes ADHD as “a malfunction of the brain’s attention system”. I don’t like the negative connotation of ‘malfunction’—or ‘disorder’ or ‘condition’, for that matter—and I’m sure Dr. Ratey doesn’t mean it that way. But, I can’t think of an alternative so, here we are.

The attention system is not restricted to a particular part of the brain. Instead, it’s made up of six main areas; each of which has many responsibilities besides supporting the attention system. The six areas are the locus coeruleus, the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, and the prefrontal cortex.

If that seems like a lot, it’s because it is and it’s why having ADHD affects LITERALLY EVERYTHING IN YOUR LIFE. Whoa, sorry. I’m ok.

To get a basic biological understanding of motivation, we’ll focus only on the nucleus accumbens, also called the reward center, and its relationship with the prefrontal cortex (PFC), what Dr. Ratey calls the brain’s CEO, which is responsible for executive functioning. The reward center and the PFC send information and instructions to each other through the brain’s communication system: a neurochemical network consisting of synapses and neurons. But before we can understand what’s going with attention and motivation, we need to understand some basics of how all mammalian brains work.

Mammalian Brain Basics

What is motivation anyway?The mammalian brain—including rats, monkeys, dolphins, elephants, as well as humans—communicates internally at the cellular level via neurons or brain cells. Think of a neuron as a tree, but instead of branches it has dendrites and the dendrites have synapses instead of leaves. Each dendrite receives electrochemical signals from its synapses. Once the neuron receives enough of the same signal, it fires its own electrical signal down the outgoing branch, the axon.

What is motivation anyway?The electrical signal follows the axon until it reaches the junction between neurons, called the synapse. Synapses don’t actually touch. Instead, chemical molecules, called neurotransmitters, carry the electrical signal from the axon of one neuron to the dendrite of the next. You can think of them as messengers moving notes between workers sitting at a desk with a phone to their ear and a pad of stickies. When the guys at the desk hear enough of the same message, they hold up their own note for a messenger to pass to the next desk.

High Maintenance Motivation

There are a bunch of different types of neurotransmitters, but we only need to touch on a couple. The two specifically relevant to ADHD are norepinephrine and dopamine. Ah-ha! You recognize that one don’t you! For context, I want to point out two others: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These two are responsible for 80% of all the signaling that happens in the brain. In relation, norepinephrine, dopamine, and the other neurotransmitters at the heart of psychopharmacology fine-tune the signals and regulate the balance of all neurotransmitters in the brain. They have different and sometimes contradictory roles in different areas of the brain:

    • Norepinephrine amplifies signals which influence attention, perception, motivation, and arousal (GET your mind out of the gutter, not that kind of arousal!)
    • Dopamine is the learning, reward (satisfaction), attention, and movement neurotransmitter.

One of dopamine’s functions is to carry signals to the reward center. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “but rewards come after I do the thing…right?” Well, no. Not inside the brain—ANY brain—as it turns out. In every human brain, the reward center has the critical responsibility to signal the PFC that something is worth paying attention to. But it only does that when it’s been sufficiently activated by dopamine.

Oh. SNAP. You might want to read that again. And what’s the thing ADHD brains need more of?

Now read this: motivation is biological. ‘Trying harder,’ is the neurological equivalent of tapping your heels three times and saying, “I am motivated”. It doesn’t work unless you’ve got some dopamine ruby slippers.

Motivation is how the PFC prioritizes. So nothing much happens in the brain unless the reward center has enough dopamine and cues the PFC to start handing out assignments. The difference in this case with ADHD brains is that:

    1. We need MORE dopamine because we don’t have enough
    2. Dopamine doesn’t tend to stick around as long as in a neurotypical brain

Motivating Your ADHD Brain

So, what can we do? Team FLEX will keep a continually expanding catalog of strategies and tools for managing ADHD, but the key concept is to get interested. Interest is one of the main ways to activate the production of dopamine. The more interested you are, the more dopamine your brain makes (at the extreme we get hyper-focused).

First identify what it is you need or want to do, then identify ways to make your task interesting! Try employing one of the following strategies:

    • Make it new or novel – do it a different way, in a different place, hanging upside down, or try to do it one-handed!
    • Make it fun – add music, add color, make it silly, make it into a game, add snacks (cheddar Goldfish, anyone?)
    • Make it challenging – time yourself to do it as fast as possible, up the stakes, do it better than you ever have before

If your task is something you need to do often, resparklize it! Select another strategy to make it interesting again.

An alternative way to get things done consistently with or without motivation is to build a habit or routine. Find out more about it here!

Work Out First!

You may have heard or tried a lot of strategies before, but what you may not have heard is: do a workout first! This was one of the key revelations from Dr. Ratey’s book. Remember that neurotransmitters have many functions and that dopamine also plays a role in movement.

A key takeaway from Spark is that 20-30 minutes of cardio results in a release of dopamine for around 60 to 90 minutes AFTER you stop moving. According to Dr. Ratey, your workout should be “pretty hard” or hard enough that you could just barely sustain a conversation. For those with a heart rate monitor, you should be above your fat-burning range, but below your anaerobic or peak range. As a starting place, he suggests aiming for 65-75% of your max heart rate for women and 75-85% for men. Keep in mind that he identified those ranges from a single study using children. So use your intuition, experiment, and find what feels right for you.

There is a TON of great information for us to unpack from Spark, so keep an eye out for more articles on the brain and exercise! If you found this interesting or helpful, let us know below!

We hope you found this article helpful. If you’d like to support our awesome mission, consider buying us some coffee or becoming part of our editorial crew! Don’t forget, if you have ADHD, or think you have ADHD, you can join our FREEEE slack community to get to know some other cool kids.

1 comment

Andree Morgan May 18, 2021 - 9:12 pm

That was such an interesting (dopamine inducing !!) well written article .. I appreciate you condensing some of Spark to this bite size chunk for us cause I haven’t had the time to read it yet .. off for a run ..!


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