Why Do We Keep Walking? Motivation Just In Time for Exams
Christian Monti digs deep to explain what keeps students ticking ahead of exams.
If I threw 1000 coins in the air, what are the odds that out of all 1000, exactly 500 would land heads and 500 tails? You’d be smart to bet against that happening of course. Technically there is a statistical probability ( 2.5%), but it’s small enough to assume it won’t happen if we tried it. When we are dealing with molecules, of which there are vastly more than 1000 in a given system (10^23 > 10^3), it’s even safer to say they will never react in the way that produces the more ordered system. Entropy (chaos) will always be favoured. This is the gist of the second law of thermodynamics (2LOT). So what does this have to do with motivation? It turns out the inevitability of chaos, and our fight against it, plays the critical role in what drives humans.
Criticizers of the theory of evolution used 2LOT to argue that it is physically impossible for us to have evolved from a single celled organism. How could something as complex and ordered such as a human have emerged from one cell, or even more perplexing, from the basic single-atom elements that constitute our universe (carbon, nitrogen etc.)? Well, how does a pile of sand turn into an ordered sand castle? Through the use of well guided energy from an outside force (you). It would never assemble itself otherwise. In the case of life on Earth, the outside source of energy is the sun. The guiding force is of course, evolution. Basically every day we make an effort to intake chemical energy into our body in the form of food, energy which at some point originated from the sun. This gives us the energy necessary to ceaselessly build and maintain our constitution, tirelessly preventing deterioration-which will inevitably occur if we don’t eat. We rival against the pull towards atomic chaos, and bring order to ourselves. Most of this is done by our body on its’ own but conscience effort is also required. Therefore the critics didn’t realize that with the input of guided energy from an outside source, you could bring order to chaos. As nature consistently tears down our sand castle (body and mind), we put it back together. This includes the restructuring and ordering of the synaptic networks in our mind when we learn and organize once chaotic, unclear areas of knowledge. Of course it’s a losing battle in the end, but we are destined to fight it nonetheless. If we weren’t built to fight it, we wouldn’t exist. Architects don’t care that someday their creations will erode.
Our brain incentivizes eating food by activating dopaminergic neural pathways. This is why eating is so pleasurable. Over time organisms that maintained hygiene, socialized successfully, sought shelter, engaged in intercourse and planned for the future passed on their genes more frequently and thus these activities are too rewarded with dopamine. How successful you perceive yourself to be compared to those around you at accomplishing life-affirming activities determines how much serotonin you are likely to have flowing in between your synapses at a particular moment. People higher in serotonin have less of a reaction to stressful situations, take more risks and generally view life through a more optimistic lens. The point is that self-constructive behaviours are chemically incentivized in our brains. You get satisfaction from building your sand castle.
Now, that doesn’t mean our dopaminergic/serotonergic systems are perfect. They can be abused and misled. They are like firmware that requires more complex software to operate properly. This is partly why we developed our cerebrum, specifically the cerebral cortices. These are higher intelligence centers designed to help us figure out how to attain our desires in a complex world that won’t simply provide them to us. When we use these intelligence centers to plan goals, we are aiming towards a future in which our needs will be more easily attainable. Sure we may have shelter and food right now. But how long will that last? Setting goals allows us to ensure we are maintained now and across time.
So why am I four paragraphs in and you still don’t have tips on motivation? Because now you know what provides positive emotion, and you can use that to your advantage. Either that or I re-articulated what you already know. We are not meant to experience pleasant feelings from doing nothing because doing nothing is bad for you. This is why it is common in religious texts to refer to the fundamental nature of reality as suffering- they noticed you have to put in work to enjoy life. As the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland says, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” But are you just trying to stay in the same place, or get ahead? This is where planning comes in. Instead of just eating to feel good, or using drugs to hack the system, the best means by which future lawyers can get their pleasure is through setting meaningful goals. This ensures that someday, you won’t have to run to stay in the same place. More importantly though, as your brain recognizes your progression towards this potential reality, it will reward you. Additionally, the more emotionally connected you are to that future- the more you want it, the greater you will feel as you progress. Your brain will reward you more. So as you study for exams, think about why you are becoming a lawyer (or getting a JD).
What does this mean to you? Sure it will take care of your need for food, shelter, clothing and such, but beyond that, what will it mean for you in terms of your place in the world? How can you connect to your future as a lawyer in a spiritual, exciting manner? Who will you become at the end of this? How will being a lawyer enable you to care for your loved ones, or provide for them? Is there a particular cause you need to fight for, one that emotionally engages you when you hear about it? Or how will it enable you to take care of humanity? What kind of house will you have and lifestyle will you be able to lead? The more meaningful your vision for yourself, the more your brain will reward you as you progress towards that vision. You can let your primitive, limbic desires for pleasure run rampant, and this will be a hedonistic but unproductive life. Your sand castle will never look better than it does right now. Or you can aim yourself towards a worthy goal and enjoy the reward called progress.
Many people use these incentivizing systems to move forward, some lesser so. There is one pre-programmed neural mechanism through which all humans are kicked into first gear-that would be fear. In fact fear is so old, even those pesky unicellular organisms have means by which to avoid unpleasant fates. Humans will do more to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. You’ll climb a hill to get 1000$ at the top, you may even do a jog. But if you found out that someone else is also climbing the hill for that 1000$, you are more motivated by the fear of missing out on the money. Something lost is more motivating than something gained. If a rabid dog were chasing you, you’d sprint up that hill. So what will happen if you don’t prepare for exams? What is the opportunity you are competing for at the top of the hill? What is the rabid dog pushing you forward to study? Is it that you won’t get the ideal job you’re aiming for? Is it how much you will disappoint those who believe and support you? Perhaps you’ll disappoint yourself?
So there you have it. Guide the manifestation of your rudimentary survival instincts effectively using your intelligence. Align yourself such that you have prosperous, emotionally connected goals in front of you with some realistic, intimidating fears behind you. Now get working on that sand castle.