Understanding helps us heal from our painful experiences. Understanding also helps us avoid repeating those experiences. What is understanding? Understanding is knowledge gained by our higher-verbal brain that helps it to manage our lower non-verbal brain. Understanding is, therefore, a path to our own impulse control. In the next few weeks, I am going to present a series on the science of motivation. I hope that a new understanding of motivation will help you in your quest for healing.
Where does motivation come from?
The first thing to understand about motivation is that it does not originate in our higher verbal brain (the cerebral cortex). It originates in our non-verbal, lower brain or limbic system. This part of the brain performs the functions of what Freud called the unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind is very much like wind. It is unseen yet very powerful. We know it exists because we see its effects and we can feel it. Yet, we do not know exactly where its force is coming from. Just as an experienced sailor uses his understanding of the wind to travel, one who understands motivation can use its energy to go far.
Motivation starts with the anticipation of pleasure
Motivation research began with the discovery of the fact that rats will press a bar to obtain various rewards. This discovery allowed scientists to study motivation in mathematical terms. For the first time, we had a measure of desire and therefore motivation. If a rat pressed a bar many times, he showed a strong desire for a particular reward. With these measures we discovered that motivation starts with the anticipation of pleasure. Something about pleasure is rewarding in that pleasure causes behaviors to be repeated.
We soon discovered that all the things that act as rewards and that increase motivated behavior are sources of pleasure. These things are food/water, sex, entertainment, possessions, affection, social dominance and substances of abuse. When a behavior causes us to get these things, we repeat that behavior. Thus, by some brain process, an association is made between an action and its outcome—getting a source of pleasure. All rewards influence motivation by affecting the same brain process.
Pleasure is necessary for learning an association between action and obtaining reward. This association, once made, causes behaviors to be repeated. Repeated behaviors are motivated behaviors. Pleasure, therefore, is the beginning of motivation. The things that give us pleasure are necessary for survival and we physically need them. We want and crave these things and we like them because they are sources of pleasure.
Needing, wanting and liking
There is an interesting interplay between needing, wanting and liking. For example, when a person is starving, food is much needed, and thus very pleasurable. Food becomes less needed, and thus less pleasant, for someone who has already eaten. The motivation for a particular type of reward is not constant but waxes and wanes, as does the pleasure from that reward. One piece of chocolate, for instance, can be quite tasty and rewarding. But even a chocolate connoisseur will probably only experience disgust if he or she is forced to eat two pounds of chocolate at once!
Recently, scientists trying to understand addiction have discovered something truly remarkable. That is, although pleasure is required to establish a behavior pattern, pleasure is not required to maintain that behavior pattern. Wanting related behaviors can occur in the absence of pleasure and are called compulsions. The bottom line is that wanting to do something and liking to do that something are not the same.
Cues from the environment become associated with pleasure in the early stages of establishing a motivated behavior. Later, these cues trigger wanting to do the behavior even in the absence of pleasure obtained by that behavior. Addiction is the best model for understanding this aspect of motivated behavior. Long after the addict has stopped feeling pleasure from the addictive substance, things that remind him of using trigger drug cravings and the compulsion to use. The brain pathways that are active in craving, wanting and pursuing addictive drugs are the same ones involved in all motivated behavior. This is why addiction affects all motivated behavior.
Motivation and healing from a relationship with a sociopath
Where am I going with all this psychology? I am trying to convince you that your compulsion to be with a sociopath can continue even after the relationship has stopped giving you pleasure. The sociopath knows instinctively that all he/she has to do is hook you in the initial pleasure phase, and you will continue to feel a compulsion to be with him/her. Sociopaths typically change in their relationships once they sense the other person is hooked or attached.
Just as cues trigger craving in addicts, reminders of the sociopath can trigger a longing for that initial relationship. Furthermore, just as complete abstinence is the only hope for recovery from addiction, staying away from the sociopath is the beginning of recovery.
Even though the maintenance of addiction and attachment to an undesirable person are the same, I do not believe that attachment to a sociopath is a sign there is something wrong with you. The sociopath and the substances of abuse hijack a brain pathway meant to serve survival. Once hijacked, the survival system becomes a path to destruction.
If a sociopath has hijacked your attachment pathway, start to break the compulsion today. Use your conscious mind and stay away from the person, don’t answer emails or phone calls. Remove from your life as much as possible reminders of the relationship. Distract yourself with other pleasures. Lastly, do not isolate yourself from other people. Since the sociopath has hijacked your attachment pathway, if you are “starved” for affection, your craving for him/her will only increase if you are lonely.
Next week we will discuss the brain pathways and hormones involved in the love bond.