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Lifelong Learning and Active Brains: M is for Motivate

Motivating ourselves and others.

Arthur Shimamura
Source: Arthur Shimamura

Evolutionarily speaking, we are learning machines—geared to sense our environment, register new experiences, and adapt accordingly. In modern times we have co-opted this survival mechanism to enjoy the pleasures of conversation, television, movies, and other forms of entertainment. Unfortunately, our modern pleasures have become much too passive, as we fail to engage ourselves actively with new learning experiences. As a way of instilling lifelong learning, I offer MARGE, a whole-brain approach that stands for five principles of learning: Motivate, Attend, Relate, Generate, and Evaluate. Each principle can be linked to specific neural circuitry, which offers a way to bridge biological findings to psychological approaches.

How we motivate ourselves and others is the first principle of efficient learning and perhaps the most difficult one to implement. There are times when personal interests make it easy for us to seek new information, such as learning about a favorite topic, activity, or hobby. The trick to motivation is to expand the spectrum of pleasure-seeking experiences and push ourselves into new environments and situations. Indeed, just enveloping oneself in a new setting and breaking away from regular habits—particularly those passive ones in front of a television or computer screen—will fully engage our learning machine. Take a walk around unfamiliar terrain and you will motivate yourself to attend, relate, generate, and evaluate.

Source: NIDA

From decades of neuroscience research, we know that pleasurable experiences are driven by a reward circuit that includes the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens, substantia nigra, and striatum. This midbrain circuit stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurochemical involved in experiencing positive feelings. Highly addictive drugs, such as cocaine and nicotine, stimulate this circuit thus releasing dopamine throughout the brain. In neuroimaging studies, the reward circuit is active when one experiences pleasurable events, such as eating chocolates, listening to music, or looking at attractive faces. Moreover, this circuit is linked directly to the frontal cortex and hippocampus, two brain areas central for efficient learning and memory.

How can we engage the reward circuit in the service of learning? In an elegant neuroimaging study, Gruber, Gelman, & Ranganath (2014) assessed the role of curiosity in activating the reward circuit. They first asked individuals to rate how curious they were about various trivia questions (e.g., What does the term "dinosaur" actually mean?) In the scanner, a trivia question appeared and seconds later the answer was provided (e.g., terrible lizard). Throughout the reward circuit—specifically the VTA, substantia nigra, and nucleus accumbens—activity was heightened for questions that were rated high in curiosity. Interestingly, this increased activity occurred during the presentation of the question rather than the answer, suggesting that it was the desire to learn about a fact rather than the answer itself that engaged the reward circuit. In a later memory test, individuals remembered answers to questions rated high in curiosity compared to those rated low, a not-too-surprising finding but one that reinforces the importance of curiosity in driving our learning machine.

We are fortunate to live in a culturally rich environment that makes it easy to engage in new learning experiences—we just need to get off the couch and move about. As mentioned, walk around town, a local park, or nature area and explore your surroundings. With smartphone in hand, learn about the history of your hometown or identify fauna and flora while strolling through a nature area. Such on-site explorations offer a full sensory (and whole-brain) experience. Also, museums, historical landmarks, and cultural centers are wonderful venues for engaging in hands-on learning. Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the San Francisco Exploratorium, the premier science museum, once said, “No one ever flunks a museum.” He appreciated the benefits of learning through experience. We all remember those enlightening student field trips which took us out of the classroom and allowed us to explore new environs. As lifelong learners we need to get out and regularly schedule our own personal "field trips."

In my personal exploration into the psychology of art and creativity, I found it useful to consider what I call the aesthetic question. At an art museum or indeed any time we experience a new work of art or even a commercial product (clothing, gadget) we can ask, "Do I like it or not?" When we ask this aesthetic question and enumerate why or why not, we bring our emotions into the learning experience: How do you feel about it? I believe that educators should ask this question to students as often as possible: Did you like the novel? Who were your favorite characters? What is good (or not good) about the electoral college? By its very nature, the aesthetic question is open-ended as there is no right or wrong answer. The aesthetic question engages emotional brain circuits and forces us to attend to and organize our knowledge.

Thoughtful analysis of any topic requires an overarching framework of the concepts at hand. As mentioned in my previous post, psychologists use the term schema to refer to the linking of facts and concepts to form knowledge structures. Efficient learning depends on an awareness of our existing schema and what facts are needed to build on this knowledge base. Without a schema, we are left with a smattering of facts and concepts without any structure. At the outset of learning a new topic, students need to be aware of a rudimentary schema of how new information is to be added to it. For example, your schema for efficient learning is MARGE, as the five principles form an overarching framework onto which new facts and details can be added.

A simple and engaging way to encourage thoughtful analysis is to frame learning with questions that address the big picture (i.e., the schema). Curiosity often comes in the form of a question—I've recently asked myself "How are magnets made?" and "Why do we have two high tides during a 24-hour period?" During college lectures, it is easy to introduce new topics with "big picture" questions—What is a schema? How does the prefrontal cortex implement top-down processing? When given a question, students are aware that by the end of the lecture they should be able to answer it.

A useful means of building schema is learning through storytelling. By their very nature stories offer their own schema—they have a beginning, middle, and end—and are typically framed by way of a series of questions and answers (What will happen next?). A good story introduces characters, predicaments, and quests. They capture our attention and emotions by guiding our thoughts and making us curious about what is to come. A story's rhythmic pacing involves the varying of tempo with stops and starts, successes and failures. There may be a hierarchy of small-scale queries woven into the fabric of larger-scale goals. Fables can be construed as tales of learning—and that's why slow and steady wins the race. Some of the best examples of learning through storytelling are TED talks—informative 18-min video lectures by engaging speakers.

With the advent of smartphones and tablets, we literally have knowledge at our fingertips. The availability of web-based resources such as Wikipedia and YouTube, makes it exceedingly easy to add new facts and concepts to our knowledge base. Some educators denigrate the use of such resources as they feel the information provided by them is superficial or may be erroneous. Yet as an entry-level gateway to conceptual information, I find Wikipedia and other fact-based applications enormously useful. For further analyses, one can access scholarly articles through electronic databases, such as Google Scholar, PubMed, and JSTOR. From entry-level presentations to scholarly lectures, YouTube is an incredible learning resources. One can access many thousands of how-to videos and introductory documentaries. Moreover, many universities, including UC Berkeley and Harvard, have made available course lectures, talks, and symposia presentations, which provide in-depth scholarly analyses. As a educational tool, these web-based resources should be essential "homework" fodder for any student.

Motivating yourself and others to learn requires the experience to be pleasurable and engaging. With respect to self-motivation, we must fight inertia—a body at rest tends to stay at rest. The best way to encourage active learning is to get moving and explore your surroundings. With respect to motivating students, the difficulty is that educators must find ways to encourage curiosity and an interest in learning. Student engagement can be fostered through "field trips," museum-like demonstrations, presenting the big picture, asking the aesthetic question, storytelling, and assigning fun videos to watch. Of course, this is just the beginning of our MARGE approach to efficient learning. To be continued.

Arthur Shimamura
Source: Arthur Shimamura


Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopamine circuit. Neuron, 84, 486-496.

Zatorre, R. J. (2015). Musical pleasure and reward: mechanisms and dysfunction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337, 202-211.