With some imagination, we can conjure up the slightly disturbing image of a disembodied brain living in a tank of nutritional fluids. Given the proper inputs, perhaps our brain in a vat could “live” contentedly with only its cognitive and emotional abilities (thinking and feeling). Reality, however, imposes requirements on all living organisms who must survive and reproduce in a highly competitive Darwinian world. Failure to seek out food, mates, companions, and information about one’s circumstances invariably has consequences about as serious as they get: (namely: starvation, death, and extinction). It’s no wonder then, that the motivation to attain all sorts of goals, important or trivial, is highly correlated with emotion, arousal, anxiety, and satisfaction. So closely allied are motivation and emotion, that the root Latin word for motion appears


As we have seen previously in papers 105 and 106, cognitive and emotional processes are major components of learning that can be described in evolutionary terms. In other words, we can understand why certain learning triggers allowed creatures, including humans, to survive and prosper under their guidance, and we can see how those triggers are instantiated in the living tissue of the brain. One question looms however. How do cognitive and emotional components create behavior out in the real world? Thinking and feeling go only so far, as our brain in a vat might testify. Without a desire to transform cognition and emotion into physical action, how useful would those attributes be? Not very. This is the third and final pillar supporting the psychological architecture of a living creature that thinks, feels, and must act in the real world. What motivates us beyond merely existing,? What drives us to do anything at all?

“ Motivation has many defnitions. I use the term to refer to neural activity that guides us toward goals, outcomes that we desire and for which we will exert efort…Goalsdirect action andcanbe as concrete as a specifc stimulus (for example, a particular consumer product) or as abstract as a belief or idea (for example, the belief that hard work will lead to success).” —Joseph LeDoux, The Synaptic Self

All successful organism are motivated to engage with the world to accomplish biological ends, and human beings come equipped with the usual array of motivations plus an enormous variety of goals and incentives seen in no other creature on the planet. Like philosophical truths, motivation lies on a spectrum. It begins with the most basic requirements of life, the kind we share with all mammals, and proceeds to the pinnacles of achievement and human aspiration.

The questions that the designers of Amplifre have asked are:

  • What are the factors that enhance the motivation to learn?
  • How can a learning protocol utilize this last pillar in the mental trilogy?
  • What psychological experiments demonstrate learning conditions that boost motivation?
  • What brain circuits mediate motivation?
  • How does evolutionary theory guide us in a search for optimal learning environments that foster motivated students?
  • Does culture play a role?

These seriously important questions, if answerable, may contain the keys to a prosperous and satisfying future for the better part of humanity if only educators successfully heed the answers. By no means is what follows a claim to a solution for this problem of problems. At best, it is a summary of motivational concepts, brain circuits that mediate them, and the environmental triggers that appear to switch motivation into high gear.

Perhaps it is the most interesting of the three pillars because one can conceive of motivation as the force that drives lifelong learning and gives rise to an educated civilization. If a society were to error badly by institutionalizing educational processes that damaged the motive force to learn, the negative consequences, while probably taking years to play out, would be potentially irreversible. On that somber note, lets’ see how motivation works and how it might be made to serve the interests of the future—an optimistic note to spur us on.

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