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The neuroscience of motivation

Explaining the neuroscience of motivation
A stylised drawing of a brain with neurone connections
© University of Nottingham

There is a growing body of evidence from research into the neuroscience of motivation that merely finding something pleasurable may not actually be enough to generate motivation.

The state of ‘liking’ something cannot be understood as motivation or a motivational state, and cannot be assumed as necessary for generating motivation. ‘Liking’ is more likely to refer to an emotional state whereas ‘wanting’ has more to do with motivation and making decisions about engagement and participation.

Take the simple example of exercise or going on a diet. Our particular ‘like’ for exercise or dieting is likely to be different to our ‘want’ to do exercise or go on a diet. We may prefer to think about ourselves as ‘liking’ exercise, or even ‘liking the idea’ – however the extent to which we ‘like’ exercise (at least, at the start of the activity) and ‘want’ to exercise may be quite different.

From this perspective, liking something and wanting to engage with something, especially in the context of learning, probably involves two quite separate processes. In fact, learning often requires people to be nudged just outside of their comfort zone, which is something people might not ‘like’.

Discussion point

Take a moment to re-evaluate your perspective on motivation. Think again about an educational activity and the environment in which the learning is taking place.

  • What factors could motivate a learner to want to engage with that educational activity?
  • What factors could have the opposite effect on a learner, that is, not want to engage with that activity?​

Share your thoughts and experiences in the discussion below.


Kim S. (2013). Neuroscientific model of motivational process. Front Psychol; 4: 98

© University of Nottingham
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