The Neuroscience of Motivation: The Brain’s Role in Achieving Goals

Key Points:

  • Motivation is deeply rooted in the brain’s functions, and understanding and working alongside these neural circuits are essential for improving motivation.
  • The brain’s reward system, consisting of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NAc), and prefrontal cortex, plays a crucial role in shaping motivation.
  • Effective goal setting, involving the activation of the prefrontal cortex, dopamine release, and focus enhancement.
neuroscience of motivation

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Motivation can feel like a mirage; it often appears just within reach but disappears as you get closer and need it the most. 

While intelligence and perseverance are helpful traits to achieve our goals, motivation – the desire to push through difficulties – is what truly measures success. Yet for many, the ability to motivate is missing, and without it, failure is inevitable.

One of the most fundamental misconceptions is that motivation is merely a matter of willpower. In truth, motivation is deeply rooted in the brain’s functions, and only by understanding and working alongside them can we learn how to improve it.

This article will overview the neuroscience of motivation and how the brain and its neural circuits work together to provide the stimulation to achieve a goal. Furthermore, we will see what steps and actions can be taken to maximize these circuits, and how you can work with your brain to achieve anything you set your mind to.

The Neuroscience of Motivation - The Brain's Reward System

At the heart of the brain’s motivational machinery lies the reward system, a complex network of neural circuits designed to guide our behavior toward rewarding experiences and outcomes.

This inherent reward system consists of three key brain regions: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens (NAc), and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Together, these three regions act like a car’s engine, steering, and braking; only when all three work together can you arrive at your motivational destination.

Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA)

The ventral tegmental area is often described as the brain’s “reward center” and is responsible for producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reinforcement. 

For a long time, scientists were unsure exactly what the VTA dopamine neurons do, but a 2020 study explored the effect of VTA dopamine neurons on an animal’s movements. 

Researchers used a special system of using light to activate dopamine neurons to measure the forces exerted by an animal’s movements. They found that VTA dopamine neurons are impressively precise in how they respond to these forces. 

When they turned these neurons on or off using light, they could control the animal’s movements, suggesting that VTA dopamine neurons play a role in determining how an animal responds to things it finds meaningful or rewarding.

It seems the VTA helps the brain predict and anticipate rewards, responding not only to rewards but also to cues or signals that predict rewards. This predictive function is critical for motivation because it provides the energy (willpower) to overcome temporary pain (such as going to the gym) to achieve a reward (such as losing weight). 

Nucleus Accumbens (NAc)

If the VTA is considered the brain’s reward region, then the nucleus accumbens region can be considered the “pleasure center.” The NAc is a key component of the brain’s circuitry and is responsible for translating motivation into action.

The nucleus accumbens receives the dopamine produced by the VTA and processes it. When we experience something pleasurable or rewarding, such as eating a delicious meal or achieving a goal, the NAc activates and releases dopamine, creating a sense of enjoyment and reinforcing the behavior or actions that led to the reward, thus motivating us to repeat those behaviors.

Interestingly, this article found that the functioning of NAc circuitry is also not static but is altered significantly by past experiences, suggesting that motivational salience is determined significantly by our environment and subjective experiences, i.e., motivation is not something we are born with but can be learned.

Prefrontal Cortex

Lastly, we have the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain concerned with both the evaluation of reward and aversive stimuli and the expectation of these stimuli. 

Unlike the other motivational centers of the brain, which operate on chemicals and automated biological mechanisms outside of our immediate control, the prefrontal cortex is part of conscious thought and higher cognitive functions that are within our control.

The prefrontal cortex is crucial for motivation because it is responsible for goal setting, planning, decision-making, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility, enabling us to pursue long-term objectives, delay gratification, monitor progress, and regulate emotions, all of which are crucial for remaining motivated.

Three areas of the brain responsible for motivation.
Three areas of the brain responsible for motivation.

Neurotransmitters and Motivation

Underlying all three motivational brain regions are neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain and throughout the nervous system.

Neurotransmitters operate by binding to specific receptors, which can activate postsynaptic neurons and either excite or inhibit certain neural circuits, in effect exciting or reducing our motivation to do something. 

Repeated excitation or inhibition makes a neuron more or less likely to generate an electrical signal and pass it on in the future, changing the strength of the connection between neurons, a phenomenon known as synaptic plasticity. 

This plays a crucial role in learning, memory, and, by extension, motivation. Stronger synaptic connections can make certain behaviors more likely to be repeated.

Several neurotransmitters play key roles in affecting motivation. The main neurotransmitters involved in motivation include:

Dopamine – Dopamine is often considered the primary neurotransmitter related to motivation and is closely associated with the brain’s reward system. When you engage in activities that lead to pleasurable or rewarding outcomes, dopamine is released, reinforcing the behavior and increasing motivation to repeat it. Dysregulation of dopamine is implicated in motivational disorders and addiction.

Serotonin – Serotonin is another neurotransmitter with significant effects on motivation as it contributes to emotional regulation. Imbalances in serotonin levels can lead to mood disturbances, affecting your motivation to engage in activities and pursue goals.

Norepinephrine – Norepinephrine is involved in the body’s stress response. It can enhance focus, attention, and arousal, which are critical for motivation, and in moderate amounts, norepinephrine can boost motivation. Excessive levels of chronic stress, however, can lead to burnout and reduced motivation.

Epinephrine (Adrenaline) – Epinephrine is closely related to norepinephrine and is also involved in the body’s stress response. It can increase alertness and energy levels, which can be motivating in certain situations. However, prolonged or excessive release of epinephrine can lead to exhaustion and reduced motivation.

Acetylcholine – Acetylcholine is involved in cognitive functions such as learning and memory. It indirectly influences motivation by affecting an individual’s ability to acquire new information and skills, which can be motivating when pursuing educational or skill-based goals.

Glutamate – Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in various cognitive functions. It plays a role in synaptic plasticity, essential for learning and forming motivated behaviors through experience.

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) – GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. While it doesn’t directly promote motivation, it plays a crucial role in regulating anxiety and stress. 

7 Neurotransmitters Involved in Motivation

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Successfully motivating yourself requires understanding the type of motivation needed for the task at hand. The two main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, require different approaches. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to the inner drive to pursue an activity for its inherent rewards. When you’re intrinsically motivated, the satisfaction comes from the act itself. For example, you might be intrinsically motivated to paint because you find it enjoyable and fulfilling.

Intrinsic motivation is thought to be closely linked to the brain’s release of dopamine and the activation of the reward system. By engaging in an activity you find intrinsically rewarding, your brain responds by releasing dopamine, creating a sense of pleasure and reinforcing the behavior.

Reading history books for a love of history, playing tennis for the love of competition, and cooking for the love of food are common examples of intrinsic motivation. Such a person who reads regularly, cooks healthily, and exercises frequently may appear more disciplined than someone who struggles with these things, but a person intrinsically motivated to perform these things will use very little willpower as the love of doing it is the reward itself.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, involves engaging in an activity to attain an external reward or avoid punishment. This could include working hard at your job to receive a bonus or studying for a test to avoid a failing grade.

Extrinsic motivation, while still involving the reward system to some extent, often relies more on cognitive processes, such as goal-setting and planning, guided by the prefrontal cortex. There is less inherent motivation to complete such tasks, and it is often with these tasks we succumb to laziness, so we have to make a greater effort to plan for them.

Examples of extrinsic motivation include financial rewards (such as working a job you don’t particularly enjoy), completing school work for good grades, and feeling the need to go out for social approval.  

The differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
The differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

The Role of Goal Setting in Motivation

Without goals, even the strongest of wills will soon lose motivation. It is like trying to sail around the world without a compass, where even the best of navigators will soon end up lost in a vast expanse. 

Goal setting is a fundamental aspect of motivation, where three key processes combine to elevate the brain’s inherent motivational systems. 

Firstly, goal setting activates the prefrontal cortex, helping you consciously plan, make rational decisions, and take action to reach your objectives. 

Secondly, goal setting triggers the release of dopamine, especially when you reinforce progress frequently and reward yourself for it. If your goal is to run a marathon, for example, your plan might increase your distance by 1km each week. Each time you complete this extra kilometer and reward yourself for it (perhaps a small treat), it reinforces your motivation to continue working towards the goal. 

Finally, setting a goal narrows your focus and attention on the task at hand, increasing focus and reducing distractions. When setbacks occur, having your goals visualized in your mind will help to keep your resilience high and reduce the chance of you quitting or giving up.

How to Improve Motivation

Understanding the science of motivational systems in the brain is only half the battle; we must also learn how to work alongside them for tangible results.

Set Goals (Correctly)

While the majority have the best intentions and attempt to set goals that help them achieve their desires, most goal-setting plans fail not because of a lack of want but because of the inability to set achievable goals that work alongside the brain’s motivational systems. 

The “Will” and the “Way”

The article “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change” by Elliot T. Berkman of the University of Oregon articulates a framework that distinguishes behavior change (the basis of goal-setting) into two distinct categories; one motivational (the will) and the other cognitive (the way). 

The first dimension, “the way”, captures the skills and knowledge required to engage in a behavior and reflects the ability to execute a goal through to completion. You might have a strong motivation to become a doctor, but without the necessary medical skills and knowledge, you won’t graduate medical school.

The second dimension, “the will”, captures the desire and drive to change. It relates to the motivation to engage in a behavior, including the want to achieve a goal and the willingness to prioritize it over others. 

Many feel pressured into going to medical school, having passed all of the exams and cognitive tests required to study, but without the will to become a doctor, they find it difficult to motivate themselves to complete their studies. 

When setting goals, ensure you plan for the way, including the skills and knowledge you will have to develop, as well as the way. Without a strong motivation to complete a goal and the means to do it, goal setting will be a wasted endeavor. 

See here for the full article: The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change.


While setting SMART goals may be the most overused advice on any self-improvement blog, their use persists because, when applied correctly, they are deadly efficient.

SMART goals are a framework for setting and achieving objectives clearly and effectively. The acronym SMART stands for:

Specific – Goals should be well-defined and clear, leaving no room for ambiguity. They answer the questions of who, what, where, when, and why.

Measurable – Goals should include quantifiable criteria that allow you to track progress and determine when they have been achieved. This often involves using numbers or specific metrics.

Achievable – Goals should be realistic and attainable within the resources and constraints available. They should stretch you but still be possible to reach.

Relevant – Goals should be aligned with your overall objectives and relevant to your larger aspirations or the context in which they are set.

Time-bound – Goals should have a specific timeframe or deadline for completion. This helps create a sense of urgency and ensures that you stay on track.

Ensure all your goals and tasks abide by these five parameters. With just one aspect missing, the chances of persevering through tough times and completing your goals diminish greatly.

SMART Goals help bring order and logic to complex goals.
SMART Goals help bring order and logic to complex goals.

Break Goals Into Smaller Tasks

The human subconscious mind is animalistic and can only view things in black and white. Any confusion or ambiguity will cause your subconscious to become frustrated, increasing the chances that your limbic system will give up. 

Much of the ambiguity of goals, such as how to publish that novel you’ve always dreamed about writing, stems from a lack of execution. The will is there (you have a burning desire to write and publish a book), but the way (the execution) is lacking. 

Break your goal of “publishing a novel” down into smaller tasks, such as writing, publishing, and marketing. Break each of these components down further into increasingly smaller and more detailed tasks, such as planning each chapter, and setting a daily word limit of 500 words to ensure consistent progress can be measured and rewarded. 

How you break down your goals depends widely on the goal itself and your own abilities. If you love writing but hate marketing, you will have to break down your marketing goals into small enough components that you can envisage the end goal and remove the overwhelm and frustration from your subconscious. The goal is for each task to be so simple that completing it is just a matter of going through the motions.

Set Small Wins

The brain’s dopaminergic systems work best when they are rewarded. Continued completion of this reward loop allows the brain’s neuroplasticity to crave the reward again in the future. 

With each completed successful task, reward yourself with something that brings pleasure, such as a coffee or 10 minutes of social media. When you teach your brain to expect a reward upon completion of a certain task (such as writing 500 words of your novel), the expectation of a reward will provide you with a dopamine boost in anticipation of the next reward.

We can train the brain to expect these rewards by setting easy-to-complete goals that boost our sense of accomplishment and reward. Whether as simple as tidying your room or preparing your desk, even small boosts of dopamine can get the metaphoric motivation ball rolling and provide the stimulus to accomplish bigger tasks.


The neuroscience of motivation reveals that our drive to achieve goals is not solely a matter of willpower; it’s deeply rooted in the intricate workings of the brain. 

The brain’s reward system, comprising the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NAc), and prefrontal cortex, plays a crucial role in shaping our motivation. Understanding how neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine work together within these systems enables us to find ways to work with them, not against them.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are two distinct forces that drive our actions, each requiring a different approach to overcome. 

Goal setting, when done correctly, activates the prefrontal cortex, triggers dopamine release, and sharpens our focus, making it a key factor in sustaining motivation. SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, provide a practical framework for effective goal setting.

Breaking larger goals into smaller, manageable tasks and celebrating small wins along the way can stimulate the brain’s reward system, creating a positive feedback loop of motivation. 

So, armed with the knowledge of how your brain fuels motivation, remember that when it comes to achieving your goals, the smartest move might just be to let your neurons do the heavy lifting – after all, they’ve got the inside track on what really drives success.


A lack of motivation can be caused by various factors, including imbalances in neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, disrupted neural circuits within the brain’s motivational system, past experiences, high levels of chronic stress, and insufficient goal-setting or unclear objectives.

Three key areas of the brain are believed to be involved in motivation: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NAc), and prefrontal cortex

Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal satisfaction and the inherent enjoyment of an activity, while extrinsic motivation is based on external rewards or avoidance of punishment.

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