The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 6): John Pepper Explained

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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 Brain's Way of Healing Book CoverNorman Doidge explains John Pepper’s relationship with motivation this way:

“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.

The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 5): Meet John Pepper, the unmotivated miracle walker

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We’ve seen earlier in this series that motivation lasts maybe 2 or 3 days, that we have to stay motivated to be motivated, and that the way we usually practice motivation is to trigger the fight or flight wiring in our brains, which keeps the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol flowing. We can get short term results that way, but in the long run chronic stress hurts:  eventually we exhaust ourselves trying to stay pumped up, lose effectiveness, deplete reserves, and impair our long-term health.

In other words, motivation practiced that way is like a well we have to keep filling in order to order to get any water out.

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Hmmm… that’s not much of a well.

there's got to be a better way

There is a better way. We can tap a spring instead, where the water comes up from way down deep, pure and refreshing. Do that, and we don’t need motivation anymore. Let’s go looking for that spring. Here’s our first stop:

The Brain's Way of Healing Book CoverNorman Doidge, M.D. introduces John Pepper this way, in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing:

“My walking companion, John Pepper, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder, over two decades ago. He first started getting symptoms nearly fifty years ago. But unless you are a perceptive and well-trained observer, you would never know it. Pepper moves too quickly for a Parkinson’s patient. He doesn’t appear to have the classic symptoms:  no shuffling gait, no visible tremor when he pauses or when he moves; he does not appear especially rigid, and seems able to initiate new movements fairly quickly; he has a good sense of balance. He even swings his arms when he walks. He shows none of the slowed movements that are the hallmark of Parkinson’s. He hasn’t been on anti-Parkinson’s medication for nine years, since he was sixty-eight years old, yet appears to walk perfectly normally.

“In fact, when he gets going at his normal speed, I can’t keep up with him. He’s now going on seventy-seven and has had this illness, which is defined as an incurable, chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disorder, since his thirties. But instead of degenerating, John Pepper has been able to reverse the major symptoms, the ones that Parkinson’s patients dread most, those that lead to immobility. He’s done so with an exercise program he devised and with a special kind of concentration.”

Most people’s walking movements are unconscious. That’s why you can talk on your cell phone and walk the dog at the same time. For all his years of practice, John Pepper hasn’t gotten to that level. Instead, he walks and controls his tremors consciously. His mind has to stay on the job; if he gets distracted or takes a day or even a moment off, his Parkinson’s symptoms come back.

He must be a really motivated guy!

No he’s not. In fact, if John Pepper had to rely on  motivation, he wouldn’t be walking at all. Motivation won’t help John Pepper, because it’s just not there. Parkinson’s Disease has taken it away.

Then how does he do it?

We’ll find out next time.