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The Brain Circuits Underlying Motivation: An Interactive Graphic

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What is motivation? The brain systems that govern motivation are built over time, starting in the earliest years of development. These intricate neural circuits and structures are shaped by interactions between the experiences we have and the genes we are born with, which together influence both how our motivation systems develop and how they function later in life.

In the interactive graphic above, hover over or click the labels on the brain regions to learn more about how each region affects motivation, and hover over or click the highlighted text to the left of the brain image to see how those regions interact.

This graphic is from “Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture That Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation,” Working Paper No. 14 from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Brain illustration by Betsy Hayes

Full Text of the Graphic

Experiences Create Pathways Between Brain Regions: How Motivation Systems Develop

Graphic shows an illustration of a human brain superimposed on the profile of a human head. Various regions of the brain are labeled, including:

  • Amygdala
    • “Emotion Trigger”—rapidly assesses incoming information from the environment and activates either approach or avoidance behaviors. This structure is critical for threat detection and learned fear.
  • Dopamine Pathways
    • A key factor in “wanting,” dopamine modulates neural activity when a rewarding event has occurred. Increases in dopamine reinforce the behaviors that elicited the reward and lead individuals to seek out and learn from new experiences in anticipation of a positive outcome.
  • Hippocampus
    • “Memory Center”—lays down detailed memories of events and triggers retrieval of these memories when presented with a relevant cue. This structure also is involved in regulating the duration of stress responses to environmental stimuli.
  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC)
    • “Behavior Tracker”—monitors the environment as well as one’s own behavior and others’ (such as social exclusion). This region sounds the alarm when behavior needs to be modified, mobilizing regions in the prefrontal cortex involved in selfregulation and decision-making.
  • Prefrontal Cortex
    • “Air Traffic Control”—manages executive functions, selfregulation, behavioral control, planning, and complex decision-making.
  • Nucleus Accumbens
    • “Reward Anticipator”—evaluates stimuli that produce wanting or liking responses. This structure also plays an important role in learning from feedback and in reward-based decision-making.
  • Substantia Nigra/Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA)
    • “Dopamine Distributors”—produce the brain chemical dopamine and deliver it to other regions of the brain that are involved in motor function and in motivating and rewarding behaviors.
  • Raphe Nuclei
    • “Serotonin Distributors”—produce the neurotransmitter serotonin and deliver it to a wide network of circuits across the brain, including structures related to motivation, reward,
      and threat detection.
  • Serotonin Pathways
    • A key factor in “liking,” serotonin combines with other neurochemicals to convey euphoria and has the widest distribution in the brain. Serotonin modulates a wide array of behaviors, including as a major influence on emotional states, sleep cycles, eating, and other rewarding behaviors.

To the left side of the brain graphic are listed the ways in which motivation systems can develop:

  1. Experiences trigger neurons (brain cells) in certain regions of the brain, including the Prefrontal Cortex, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and the Hippocampus, to send chemicals such as Dopamine and Serotonin to other neurons in different regions.
  2. Repeated experiences create different pathways, such as those for Dopamine and Serotonin, in the brain that link those experiences to thoughts, memories (in the Hippocampus), and behaviors.
  3. These linked pathways create powerful associations between what we do and the memories of how that made us feel physically and emotionally (processed by the Amygdala, the emotion trigger), and that drives our behavior (managed by the Prefrontal Cortex and Anterior Cingulate Cortex).
  4. We are motivated to repeat those experiences that made us feel good, and to avoid those that made us feel bad (as evaluated by the Nucleus Accumbens, the “reward anticipator.”)
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