Saturday, July 13, 2019

Motivation: A Little Helpful Brain Science, Part One

Not long ago I admitted to a colleague that I'm tired of "motivating" students. I want students to study and practice because they want to, not because I lit some magical motivational fire under them. I hear you all laughing, blog followers. I do. You want the same thing.

Probably most of us have employed the usual motivational tools: rewards, games, pieces that hook the student, even public performances for the students that only get really excited when they know a performance is coming up. These are all extrinsic motivators, and many of them work, at least in the short run.

But let's talk about truly intrinsic motivators. Like so many English words, the word motivation has multiple meanings. This blog defines motivation as the catalyst for physical movement. What spurs us to put one foot in front of the other or our hands on the piano keys to get ready to play? The interplay of brain chemicals and brain cells that results in a desire to move. In short, the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Neurotransmitters are the chemicals of communication between nerve cells. Nerve impulses jump across gaps between nerve cells in order to transmit information. Neurotransmitters are released into these gaps, called synapses, activating the conditions required to send messages from one cell to the next. Okay, that's all the science you need to know right now. Not too hard, right?

Neurotransmitters have particular jobs, and dopamine is key to stimulating muscles to move. Dopamine starts the engine of movement, it facilitates the continuation of movement, and it helps the brain to learn the movement to make it easier to access the next time it is desired. Pretty great stuff, right? And, guess what? It is often called the "reward neurotransmitter" because it also creates a sense of pleasure when we are doing something we like doing, which includes movements we like doing.

The brain is designed to create reward activated movement when everything is working according to plan. However, everything doesn't always work according to plan. Some external factors can impact the amount of dopamine in the system, thereby making movement less pleasurable or even harder to learn.

Here are some of the common interferences with reward activated movement:

  • STRESS   Big surprise, right? How do you move when you are feeling undue stress? What do you notice about your students' movements during stressful periods in their lives? Less dopamine means it's harder to get moving and to continue moving.
  • UNHEALTHY NUTRITION  Another obvious dopamine blocker. Junk food may offer a temporary "feel good" sensation, but over the long haul, it reduces the availability of dopamine.
  • LACK OF SLEEP  Do you or your students lack sufficient rest? Here's one more reason why you need sleep.
  • LACK OF EXERCISE  Prime the dopamine pump through purposeful movement. Walk the dog, cat, llama, whatever you own.
There are other conditions, including diseases, that can cause or contribute to a lack of dopamine in the system. Anyone with serious symptoms of fatigue, depression, and movement challenges needs to be evaluated. This list is by no means complete or to be used as a diagnostic tool. The purpose of this list is to help us understand that basic good health practices also help us move better. It's brain science, and it's not too hard.

Check out Part Two for practical tips on encouraging reward activated movement.

No comments:

Post a Comment