Last time, we met John Pepper, the conscious walker with Parkinson’s Disease. How does he do it, when Parkinson’s has literally taken the motivation out of his brain?
The answer is about dope — dopamine, that is.
The Straight Dope on Motivation
Dopamine is the brain chemical behind the pursuit of happiness. When we think about getting moving on something, it runs a cost-benefit analysis, and if the perceived reward outweighs the cost, it gets behind the idea. We feel motivated. We get going. But if the ledger comes up short, dopamine settles back on the couch and asks for more Cheetos.
“The conventional view is that dopamine is essential for movement, and because people with [Parkinson’s Disease] have too little…, they can’t move. But it turns out that dopamine is also essential to ‘feel’ that it is worth making a movement– that is, people need dopamine to feel motivated to move in the first place.
“Thus dopamine has at least three characteristics relevant to [Parkinson’s Disease]: first, it enhances motivation to move; then it facilitates and quickens that movement; and finally it neuroplastically strengthens the circuits involved in the movement, so that movement will be easier next time. But if there is no motivation, no movement will occur.
“A recent study shows that the ‘motivation to move’ goes awry in [Parkinson’s Disease].
“The importance [of this study] for understanding Parkinson’s cannot be underestimated: it is not simply that [Parkinson’s Disease patients] have an inherent inability to move normally and at a normal speed; the motivational component of their motor system is also fundamentally compromised.
“Parkinson’s Disease appears in its symptoms as a physical movement disorder, but it has roots that are ‘cognitive’ or ‘mental,’ and is thus as much a mental as a physical disorder.
“Which is precisely why it is problematic to teach Parkinson’s patients that the loss of dopamine prevents them from moving! This instruction will only reinforce passive resignation, at the very moment when that attitude needs to be undermined.
“This motivational lack is not a product of laziness or apathy or weakness of will. Rather, the brain’s dopamine-based motivation circuit often cannot energize particular movements, even when desired, and this appears as weariness or lassitude.
“That John Pepper was able to motivate himself to move, despite limited dopamine, attests to the vital force of his mind and will. But to translate that motivation still required a ‘neurological’ discovery on his part. He still couldn’t do normal, everyday walking, which is automatic and habitual… until his conscious walking technique got around this circuit and allowed him to use other circuits.”
In other words, John Pepper’s dogged walking practice — not his brain’s motivation mechanism — has recruited other parts of his brain to help him stay with it.
Why is John Pepper important to you and your pursuit of motivation?
Because we all have those moments when we just can’t seem to get ourselves going. Dopamine just isn’t behind the idea. When that happens, we need to find some other way to get moving even when we’re not motivated to do so.
We’ll dig deeper into that idea next time.