Without motivations we would not be alive. We need the energy and desire to seek food, stay safe and reproduce. Our brain mediates motivation through three neurological systems: the threat brain, drive brain and safe brain. In reality, they are all part of one interconnected system but it helps to understand their various functions if we separate them.
These systems produce neurochemical responses, for example, adrenalin in response to danger (to support the fight or flee response) and endorphins in response to pain (to enable rest and recovery). These neurochemical responses are designed activate our threat, drive or safe brain to achieve basic goals.
Threat Brain – fight, flee, freeze
The brain’s oldest purpose is to ensure survival of the species. To do so, it must sense, process and store information that enables us to detect and respond to threat, find a mate and protect our offspring. Of these the most significant is avoiding threat and danger. Our first priority is to stay alive. Our earliest ancestors, living in harsh environments, needed to be highly vigilant and ready to attack or run. Their sensitivity to danger and reflex responses are still at the core of our brain function, although the contexts in which we live have changed a lot.
The physiological reactions triggered by emergencies are very effective. The combination of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline increases blood pressure, blood sugar level, breathing rate and muscle contraction. It boosts energy and prepares the body to act fast. It also narrows our attention (to focus on the threat) and memory (so it stores only vital information), impairs digestion, lowers sex drive and suppresses the immune system (to save energy and keep us alert). So the threat response stops anything that might ‘waste’ energy and detract from fighting or escaping danger. Under threat, our emotional, cognitive and behavioural range is significantly reduced.
But our mind can turn on this physical reaction simply by imagining or worrying. Threat brain responds not only to acute physiological emergencies but equally to imagining and worrying about problems. Stress-related illness arises if we regularly ‘turn on’ our threat system in this way. The result is that our stress response can become more damaging that the problem we are worrying about.
People often worry about problems at work and in their personal lives. But these problems are complex and can rarely dealt with by simply fighting, running away or giving in. For example, job insecurity, as handled by our threat brain, may lead us to compete aggressively, treat others ruthlessly or obsequiously or be so consumed by anxiety that our work and relationships suffer. These threat brain reactions are likely to make things worse. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on our threat brain. Our safe brain can help us learn, reflect and collaborate.
Safe Brain – rest, recuperate, reflect, relate
Safe brain motivations emerged to help us look after our young. Caring increases our offspring’s chances of reaching maturity and reproducing. The first mammalian caring capabilities were basic – feed and defend the nest. By the time we get to humans this caring relationship and social mentality has evolved into a much more complex set of capabilities. Compassion, altruism and love represent evolutionarily recent safe brain motivations.
The safe brain system releases hormones like oxytocin and endorphins that help us feel calm and relaxed. This conserves energy in our body, promotes ongoing, mellow, steady-state activity and is associated with a feeling of contentment. A calm, stress-free environment and the experience of kindness and love can activate the safe brain system. We can also activate it through meditation, deep breathing, gentle exercise and restful sleep.
When our safe brain is active we are better able to bond and collaborate with others, care for ourselves, rest and reflect. Calm also provides optimal conditions for the growth and function of our pre-frontal cortex which enables us to focus our attention, think creatively and solve complex problems.
Drive Brain – compete, accumulate, achieve, experiment
Our third motivational system, drive brain, motivates us to compete, accumulate resources, achieve and experiment. These motivations emerged early in our evolution and helped us to join and manage our status in groups. Drive brain is potentially a great asset. It fuels the energetic, progressive, inventive, risk-taking aspects of our personality and at its best enables us to participate fully in life.
Drive brain is a reward-based system and uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to make us curious, excited and brave. Drugs such as cocaine and speed mimic dopamine yet it is naturally stimulated when we win, fall in love, get promoted or enjoy extreme sports. These natural ‘highs’ can be as addictive as synthetic ones. The excitement and ‘hyped up’ pleasure that dopamine brings can lead us to want more. We can get over-attached to activities that stimulate dopamine production: computer games, hard work, drinking alcohol, using Facebook, shopping and checking our phones. When we stop, we experience withdrawal symptoms like boredom, restlessness, inability to concentrate and anxiety.
Today our drive brain is frequently over-stimulated because society encourages us to want more, have more and be more. Comparing ourselves with others (useful in helping us gauge how to fit into groups) is debilitating when we compare ourselves to unattainable images of perfection. Under these conditions our drive brain is constantly active. We push ourselves to achieve, accumulate and compete but feel that we never measure up. Feeling not good enough can trigger a threat reaction which is related to the fear of rejection or abandonment.
Threat brain and drive brain looping – a toxic combination
When our motivation to compete, achieve and prosper is supported by safe brain logic, focus and calm then our drive brain works well and is rewarding. This is healthy drive, which promotes value-aligned achievement, prudent risk-taking and enjoyment of new challenges. But when drive brain is fuelled by threat, our motivation to achieve and compete becomes ruthless, exhausting and addictive. Toxic drive is common among employees who feel stressed, over-worked and driven by external expectations – for example, when we feel we must work long hours not because we love our work but because we fear losing our job or being judged incompetent.
[This entry is closely based on an article by Dr Nelisha Wickremasinghe, which suggests how to manage Toxic Drive. Nelisha is a senior psychologist and managing director at the Dialogue Space, which provides unconventional, whole person facilitation and coaching for individuals, groups and organisations.]
Read the full article by Dr Nelisha Wickremasinghe
The Dialogue Space
Contact Nelisha Wickremasinghe
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