Arthur Boorman is a legend. A 47-year-old disabled Gulf War vet who was told he’d never walk unassisted again and who worked to prove everyone wrong.
His story fires us up with echoes of the late Bruce Lee’s debilitating back injury from which he recovered when there was little hope he’d walk properly, never mind kick, again.
The subtext here about not giving up is about willpower, focus and perseverance and, inadvertently this then leads to judgement (however covert) about strength of character and motivation.
The brain’s neurobiochemical apparatus however doesn’t subscribe to socially-constructed value judgements; nor does it make sense to believe that the intangible quality of “character” is capable of stopping us from doing what we know is good for us.
The Science Behind Giving Up
Yet, we all know instances when we gave up. We typically say we “lost heart”, grew frustrated with repeated failures, became “disheartened”.
We know that the brain’s reward system is the driving force behind our motivation and, when things go wrong, behind our addictive behavior.
Brains however have evolved to help us survive and in order to do that they need us to behave in a balanced way where the return on investment (ROI) of our energy expenditure delivers some reward. That means that there is a mechanism against perseverance that stops us from becoming obsessed with something despite repeated failures and can then move on to other things.
A neuroscientific study carried out by bioengineers at the University of Washington School of Medicine reveals that the brain also possesses neurons (dubbed “frustration neurons”) that work to countermand the action of the neuropeptide dopamine that activates our reward system by producing a countering neuropeptide called nociceptin. The result is that after repeated failures we, just like the mice in the experiment, lose our motivation and just give up.
You’re Not Quite Off The Hook Just Yet
At this point it’s probably quite tempting to say “Oh, well. That’s that.” and forget about ever working to improve your memory, increase your knowledge, learn new skills, get fitter, lose weight, work at a complex project with many moving parts or, perhaps less ambitiously, learn to dance.
While it’s true that everything we think and feel has a neurobiological basis to it that is governed by peptides and neurotransmitters, the controller behind it all resides deep behind our eyes and determines what we really want to do by working out who we really are.
Our motivation is governed by our values. Our values are created out of our sense of purpose. Purpose is the result of distinct choices in the direction we choose to head towards. Our actions are powered by our motivation.
A strong motivation comes from the clarity of our sense of what we want to do (and why) that emerges only after we have faced our self, deep inside and asked the difficult questions of “who” and “why”.
Arthur Boorman always knew he should work to get fitter again. What he needed to get there was the wake-up call that he wouldn’t be around to see his family. Bruce Lee, faced the prospect of a career-ending injury with the knowledge that his wife just had a child and he was responsible for both of them. His martial arts skills were the sole means he had of providing for them.
The importance of understanding who you really are cannot be overstated. It determines what you’re prepared to do in order to get what you want. The most important aspect of this however is about managing your expectations, improving your patience and getting comfortable with discomfort.
It’s probably no coincidence that the nociception modulatory system that creates the anti-dopamine surge that restrains the reward system in the brain also happens to be key to how the brain modulates pain. This links the practice of seemingly extreme physical practices like the Wim-Hof method of taking long ice baths to the more practical results of having better focus, patience and perseverance.
Recapping, in order to maintain your motivation in the face of adversity here's what you have to do:
- Know who you really are
- Understand what you want
- Decide where you are really going
- Work out what you truly value in life
- Articulate your personal red lines and limits
- Become comfortable with handling discomfort