Episode 12: How To Increase Motivation & Drive | Huberman Lab

Key Takeaways

  • Dopamine is involved in wanting – not having – the excitement or anticipation about something increases dopamine firing 30-40x
  • Dopamine motivates you to take action toward the thing you want
  • Novelty is the number one trigger of dopamine release
  • A subtle feature about the dopamine system: for every bit of dopamine that’s released, there’s a crash associated when prolactin is released
  • Prolactin is behind the feeling of “what’s next” or letdown after a big goal
  • Dopamine make us focus on things outside of us that we have to chase; serotonin makes us content with the here and now
  • To maintain high levels of motivation, try intermittent reward: celebrate successes every other time, every tenth time, etc. to blunt dopamine response, prevent a crash, and keep you on the path to bigger goals


Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

In this episode of Huberman Lab, Dr. Huberman breaks down the science of motivation and drive. He explains dopamine and other chemicals involved in the pursuit of goals, pleasure, and reward as they relate to addiction, how to leverage behaviors for benefit, and how to maintain motivation over the long term.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Background On Motivation

  • Motivation and the chemistry of motivation are fundamental to our life
  • Without motivation, we wouldn’t move
  • Motivation is about balancing pleasure and pain
  • There is a relationship between dopamine released in the brain and the desire to exert effort
  • Dopamine is responsible for our sense of motivation and movement
  • Dopamine is a double-edged sword: responsible for motivation and pleasure but underlies addiction


  • Novelty is the number one trigger of dopamine release
  • Dopamine is the substrate from which adrenaline is made (or epinephrine in the brain) which allows us to take an action
  • Mesolimbic pathway AKA reward pathway: ventral tegmental area (VTA) + nucleus accumbens
  • The prefrontal cortex controls how much and when dopamine is released
  • Dopamine neuron fire at a low rate until you start thinking about or craving something – could be as simple as food, coffee – or more complex
  • If you get excited or anticipate something, the rate of dopamine firing increases 30-40x and pushes you to action
  • Examples of activities and associated dopamine increases: sex doubles dopamine levels; nicotine increases dopamine 150%, cocaine and amphetamine increase dopamine approximately 1000%, video games can release dopamine somewhere between nicotine and cocaine
  • Just thinking about the activity – sex, food, drug, etc. – can sometimes release as much dopamine as the actual act of whatever you’re craving

Pleasure-Pain Balance & Addiction

  • When you anticipate something, a little dopamine is released – when you participate in that thing, a little more dopamine is released
  • When you repeatedly engage in craved behavior, there is a shift away from dopamine and into pain
  • A subtle feature of the dopamine system: for every bit of dopamine that’s released, there’s a mirror image downward deflection of pleasure (pain)
  • Part of the experience is to want more of that thing you crave
  • The more you participate in craving, dopamine reduces and pain increases – this leads to addiction
  • 15-20% of people have a genetic bias toward addiction
  • Dopamine isn’t as much about pleasure as it is the desire and pursuit to reduce the amount of pain
  • “Much of pursuit of pleasure is simply to reduce the pain craving. Part of the enjoyment is craving and wanting more of that thing.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

Dopamine Versus “Here And Now” Molecules

  • Body and brain can direct our attention to inside or outside of us
  • Dopamine biases us toward thinking about things we don’t have; serotonin, cannabinoids, and other “here and now” molecules make us content in the present
  • Dopamine make us focus on things outside of us that we have to chase; serotonin makes us think about the here and now
  • Serotonin is the molecule of bliss and contentment for what you already have
  • Shift from dopamine system to ‘here and now’ molecule release
  • Dopamine makes people rabidly in pursuit of things; things that hit the serotonin system (e.g., marijuana) tend to make people content
  • Dopamine can cause high achievers to become manipulative and unpleasant: “Dopamine doesn’t care how you reach your goals, it only cares that you reach your goals.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

Procrastination And Motivation

  • There isn’t a single source of procrastination
  • Two types of procrastinators: (1) people who enjoy the stress of impending deadline – tapping into epinephrine system – which activates action in the body; (2) people who are simply not releasing enough dopamine
  • To break procrastination type 1 – induce epinephrine release: super oxygenation breathing, caffeine, consume L-tyrosine (via red meat or supplement),
  • To break procrastination type 2 – induce dopamine release: mucuna pruriens, anti-depressant
  • “You can become a person where is enough is never enough – the only thing dopamine wants is the release of more dopamine.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Try to attach dopamine with the pursuit instead of the end-goal

Dopamine Crash

  • After dopamine release, prolactin releases
  • So much dopamine is released in pursuit of a goal, to finish a race, before a big meeting, etc. that it can be hard to manage the crash that comes after – that crash sensation is prolactin
  • Prolactin is behind things like post-partum depression, letdown or low after goal, “what next” feeling
  • The dopamine-prolactin system first evolved for reproduction: after orgasm, prolactin is released and creates the lethargy, stillness period
  • Vitamin B6 and zinc are potent prolactin inhibitors
  • There are subjective effects of dopamine: the longer you can extend arc of positive experience, the more you will offset pain

Reward-Prediction Error

  • Possibility is deeply woven into the dopamine system
  • In the neurological system, the surprise, novelty, motivation, and reward release dopamine
  • Reward-prediction error = actual amount of dopamine released in response to something – the amount expected
  • If you tell a child they “might” have ice cream later, you’re effectively telling the dopamine they will have ice cream – if it doesn’t happen, there’s a big dopamine crash

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) & Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) In Kids

  • The drugs given to treat ADD and ADHD in kids (like Adderall) have amphetamine-like properties
  • In kids, these drugs activate forebrain circuitry and reduce impulsivity
  • Impulsivity at age 10 is predictive of overeating disorders later in life
  • The goal of ADD/ADHD drugs: suppress the release of dopamine to better control the schedule of dopamine release

Dopamine Schedule

  • You can control dopamine schedules to optimize motivation and pleasure
  • There is some subjectivity in dopamine release
  • Viewing bright light in the middle of the night blunts dopamine and suppresses activation of the reward system
  • Separate pleasure from motivation: dopamine is about the motivation of pleasure, not the ability to experience pleasure
  • Over the counter phenylethylamine (PEA) releases dopamine and serotonin at low levels: heightened sense of mental acuity, athletic performance, improved mood and attention
  • Caffeine can increase dopamine release in the brain by about 30% and have a protective effect

To Maintain Pursuit Of Goals

  • To ensure you will remain on the path and exceed previous performance: occasionally remove reward subjectivity
  • As you move toward goal, blunt reward response for intermediate goals
  • Celebrate some wins but not all wins – intermittently reduce the impact of reward
  • Not celebrating keeps the dopamine system in check and avoids the big crash, and keeps you on the path of higher goals
  • Intermittent reinforcement schedule: reward yourself every other time, every tenth time, etc
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Notes By Maryann

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