Modern imaging has provided solid empirical support for the psychological theory that emotional programming is largely defined in childhood. Harold Chugani, Medical Director of the PET Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics, neurology and radiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, has found that children's brains are much more capable of consuming new information (linked to emotions) than those of adults. Brain activity in cortical regions is about twice as high in children as in adults from the third to the ninth year of life. After that period, it declines constantly to the low levels of adulthood. Brain volume, on the other hand, is already at about 95% of adult levels in the ninth year of life.
Data by Harold Chugani on brain activity, 1996 (click image for source details). The red dots show activity in the frontal cortex, the "youngest" region in the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. It is important for analysis and creativity. The blue curve, copied from another diagram of the same source, shows the development of brain volume through childhood. As can be seen from the data, brain activity in children is much higher than in adults, making early influences critical for motivation in later life.
This is crucial to the understanding of motivation as well. Different people can generate positive emotional responses from different actions. Mathematicians may be able to enjoy dealing with complex formulas, programmers feel the same way about computer code, musicians may feel "in tune with themselves" when composing or playing, and so forth. Given the above knowledge about the early programming of the human brain, and given that memories are encoded together with emotions, it must be concluded that at least part of these different emotional responses are generated during childhood. A child who grows up watching television but not reading any books may find it difficult in later life to be motivated by purely textual information; a child neglected by its parents may be unable to make motivating social connections later.
A more controversial conclusion is that exposing children to too much simplistic, emotionally driven entertainment will "dull" their brains and make them incapable of acting far outside the narrow boundaries of indirect motivation to satisfy primary needs (money to survive) and quick positive emotional response (TV, games etc.). If this view is correct, it would be very difficult to fix these problems in adult life.
The education systems of most countries do take little of the above discussion into account, to the disdain of many scientists who study them. Learning is frequently equated with memorizing, and negative conditioning (in some countries to the point of corporal punishment) is common. Positive experiences, on the other hand, are often deliberately prohibited. Many schools (especially in the United States) have bans against public displays of affection, such as hugging and kissing, and teenage sexuality is frequently considered highly problematic, countered with severe punishment and sexual abstinence campaigns. While these actions are taken out of the belief that they are necessary to prevent negative consequences such as teenage pregnancies, groups like the Coalition for Positive Sexuality argue that this kind of social control harms teenagers while failing to accomplish any useful goal. Whether physical experiences are counted as part of a positive environment or not, it is quite probable that such an environment is necessary for a positive learning atmosphere.
Besides the very direct approaches to motivation, beginning in early life, there are solutions which are more abstract but perhaps nevertheless more practical for self-motivation. Virtually every motivation guidebook includes at least one chapter about the proper organization of one's tasks and goals. It is usually suggested that it is critical to maintain a list of tasks, with a distinction between those which are completed and those which are not, thereby moving some of the required motivation for their completion from the tasks themselves into a "meta-task", namely the processing of the tasks in the task list, which can become a routine. The viewing of the list of completed tasks may also be considered motivating, as it can create a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
Most electronic to-do lists have this basic functionality, although the distinction between completed and non-completed tasks is not always clear (completed tasks are sometimes simply deleted, instead of kept in a separate list).
Other forms of information organization may also be motivational, such as the use of mindmaps to organize one's ideas, and thereby "train" the neural network that is the human brain to focus on the given task. More simpler forms of idea notation such as simple bullet-point style lists may also be sufficient, or even more useful to less visually oriented persons.
One interesting aspect that has been somewhat neglected by sociology is the addictive nature of role playing games, which work with a system of experience points and "levels" to motivate the player to keep going; when he has gained enough points, he can advance to the next level, thereby getting new abilities and a higher status in the community, if any. While many electronic motivation systems have a basic concept of priorities, few explore the possibility of using actual scores as a motivational factor. However, some online communities that have nothing to do with gaming use similar systems; notably, the Everything2 collaborative writing community employs a complex voting/experience system. Perhaps such systems can also be used on a smaller scale.
Some authors, especially in the transhumanist movement, have suggested the use of "smart drugs", also known as nootropics, as "motivation-enhancers". The effects of many of these drugs on the brain are not well understood, and their legal status often makes open experimentation difficult. It is a fact that some of history's most productive artists have also been drug users, although it is not clear whether this correlation is also of a causative nature.
See also preference.
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