Neurochemistry of Purpose

So… what does having a sense of purpose have to do with your neurobiology? As a business coach, I wanted to understand which parts of our brain’s circuitry were involved in setting and achieving goals – and when I discovered the fourth area it blew my mind! It also shed some light on my own dissatisfaction in the past with my purpose at work during a time when I was involved with so much social impact. So let’s look at the four parts of your brain involved in goal setting and achieving. It’s important to mention that these areas of the brain do a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts, but within the context of setting and achieving goals here is a basic understanding of what’s going on under the hood. 

  1. The lateral prefrontal cortex – the logical part of our brain that deals with numeracy, timescales, logic etc. This is, of course, responsible for scheduling and making a plan for how to get to your goal. We need to be able to identify what steps are involved and then create a plan involving those steps to get us there. That all happens here, in the lateral prefrontal cortex. In fact, many of us enjoy the feeling of productivity that comes with this part of the brain being activated so much that the planning and organising stage is for many people the easy or fun part of the process – but moving past that phase into action can be much trickier (More on how to combat that coming up!).

    For others, this planning part of the process feels so big and complicated that it’s difficult to get started at all. If that’s the case for you, a handy brain hack (that utilises your dopamine system to create motivation) is to break the planning stage up into even smaller pieces: Plan your plan. Your brain doesn’t like ambiguity or confusion, and it may avoid planning because there’s some degree of ambiguity around what it is you’d even include in that plan. So, break things up into smaller steps that DO feel manageable and clear for you to get going. Even if the first thing on your list becomes something like “Identify what’s difficult or confusing about making this plan for me” and the next is “Find someone who could help me with this” – sometimes it helps to get a bit meta about this stuff until you find clarity!

    The important thing is to get the ball rolling – your dopamine system will eventually kick in once you actually start ticking things off and taking some kind of action – so the dopamine hits (that you’ll get from doing those smaller stepping stones) can really help to create the feeling of motivation you need to progress with the rest of your plan. Sometimes you just have to give it a nudge to get going. Remember Newton’s first law of motion? Well, it sort of applies to your brain too.

  2. The amygdala – Our fear and anxiety centre. This part of the brain is intrinsically involved in achieving our goals and that is extremely significant! It shows us that neurobiologically, we’re actually more likely to do something that avoids pain and discomfort than we are to do something to gain pleasure. The amygdala doesn’t care about pleasure – it only cares about keeping us safe, and it does that by setting off fear responses. So we need to have what Tony Robins famously calls “leverage”. So we need to find a way to use this part of the brain in whatever goal we are chasing – but in our favour instead of allowing fear to work against us.

    We do this by associating pain with what will happen if we DON’T take action, instead of just thinking about the fantastic vision or goal we want to move towards (which is also helpful, but on its own is far less effective – or else we’d all be rockstars!). I think this is why people are seeking coaching more and more – it’s difficult to motivate yourself when you’re biologically programmed to seek comfort and avoid pain. It is really worth pointing out that in the ‘West’ we are living in a world that presents immediate convenience at every turn in the form of high-speed internet, entertainment, dating apps, booze, delivery services, porn (that is scarily being exposed to children as young as 13 on average!), comfortable houses, video games and so much more. Having every itch scratched and everything you could ever essentially need for survival is not a great cocktail for finding the motivation to change your life, especially considering that meaningful change often requires some sort of risk or discomfort.

    But there is no growth in your comfort zone, and no comfort in your growth zone – an annoying truth I continue to wrestle with in times of learning and growth. For this reason, biologically we find it hard to pursue a goal that simply moves us closer to pleasure or our ideal vision for the future when that process might be risky. Will we get it wrong? Will we look stupid? Will we fail? This is what your amygdala is concerned with, and it’s invasive in the process of going after our goals. Our brain says “That sounds new or different so I can’t be certain of that outcome. As long as I’m not in any real danger I’d rather stick to what I’ve been doing thanks”.

    How unhelpful is that?! But it’s true, we are more wired for survival than we are for self-actualisation. That is…. unless we understand our neurobiology well enough to use it to our advantage and create some of that all-important leverage (this will be helpful info for those of you addicted to planning and finding it hard to take action). So we can do this by identifying the pain and discomfort involved with not achieving that goal and not taking action right now. We need to get really clear on this. Make it big, make it scary. What are the worst consequences of NOT doing taking action? Some good coaching questions to think about (even journal about) when trying to combat lethargy and motivate yourself into action are: 
  • What could be the consequences if I don’t do this? 
  • Who will I become if I don’t take action? <— This is a good one because it speaks to our sense of self and the kind of person we are afraid of becoming (this poses a threat to our ego so it taps into survival and is often an effective intervention when done properly).
  • What do I risk if I don’t do this? 
  • What will I miss out on?

  1. The ventral striatum – this little part of your brain is about taking action or the prevention of taking action. Andrew Huberman describes this as the “go/no-go switch” in the brain. It’s closely linked to the amygdala which is why it’s so important to consciously get really clear on the pain associated with you not taking action, so your brain can start to assess things like this: “Ah, the consequences of not doing this thing are clearly painful – so I actually really want to do this”
    In short, when you get clear on your answers to the coaching questions I listed above your amygdala gives the ventral striatum the information it needs to decide it wants to move into action and take those steps towards your goal. We want your ventral striatum to feel compelled to act, and uncomfortable not to! If you can do this effectively, you can really start to hack your motivation. The more you do it, the better you’ll become at it because your neuroplasticity gets on side.

    It’s worth mentioning that for lots of people struggling with anxiety, this functionality between the amygdala and the ventral striatum is what’s happening all the time – but it’s overactive. In this case, your system is setting off too many fear responses causing you to:

    A) Take too many actions – typically in a scattered or irrational way (fight);
    B) Procrastinate by doing just about anything else, sometimes chronically for weeks/months/years on end (flight), or
    C) Feel incapable of action at all, perhaps hiding under the duvet and avoiding contact with the world (freeze).

    But what I’m trying to help shed a light on here, is how the brain pursues goals. It goes without saying that if you’re suffering from consistently high anxiety this advice is not necessarily aimed at you! You may not need more fear associated with your lack of taking action – you may need to work with this part of your brain in a different way, working to acknowledge that you are actually safe and that there are no life-threatening outcomes around the corner so you may as well give it a bash, moving you into a more playful state of mind. What this is really about, is understanding and taking ownership of our biology we can use these functions as a force for good in our lives, using this circuitry to help us instead of hindering us. So if you’re wracked with nerves and fear already – listen to your body and act accordingly!

    And finally! Drum roll please, for the epic, the beautiful, the illusive and the final magical piece of the jigsaw…
  1. The orbitofrontal cortex – this mysterious and fascinating part of the brain, located just above and behind our eyes. In short, the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for meshing a sense of emotionality with your goal – it cares about how you feel about it, and there’s no lying to your own brain. How will you genuinely feel about achieving this goal? How do you feel about not having achieved it yet? And crucially, it does this on a shorter-term basis too by dealing with how you feel about the smaller tasks along the way (i.e. the work you have to do daily to achieve the bigger goal).

    So does the kind of work you do daily actually tap into any of your natural strengths and innate gifts? The things you really enjoy doing? Because if it does, you’re going to feel good about doing it and happier to get started – and this makes a massive difference. If you feel happy about the activities required of you along the way (i.e. not hassled or daunted by them!) and if you are even excited that you get to do things you feel good about (and equipped for) in the process, you’re going to light up this part of your brain that is crucial to achieving your goals! This means that in order to achieve peak performance, peak efficiency and maximum productivity – you have to really genuinely give a shit about what kinds of things you’re doing (your day-to-day responsibilities), and not just why you’re doing it (the outcome of achieving the goal).

    So if you’re looking for a sense of purpose and you’ve found an external thing you can do (perhaps working or volunteering for a charity for example) – that is a great external way to start finding a sense of purpose. But feeling good about the external goal AND your internal, personal experience of what you will be doing (the day-to-day tasks) – this is magic for your sense of true purpose. This is because your orbitofrontal cortex is intrinsically involved in your goal-setting and achieving process – and it knows how you feel about both of these things: the external goal and your personal experience of getting there. So typically you really give a shit (and these are all scientific terms here) on a neurobiological level (in your orbitofrontal cortex) when you:

    A) Feel genuinely excited about the outcome of your goal,
    B) Enjoy the type of work you’re doing, and
    C) Also feel like you’re good at the kind of work you’re doing.

    This is where you can find true alignment and a sense of belonging and purpose in your life.

    If you want to take it up a level – then if you can combine all of this with feeling a sense of your skills progressing (getting better and better at what you’re doing), then this is like gold dust to your dopamine system. A more sophisticated model for this neurochemistry is called getting into a flow state.

    So caring deeply about the external outcome of your work is important, a good cause for example. But that doesn’t replace genuinely enjoying what you’re up to on a daily basis – it’s that simple. Who knew that our feelings were so important in something as practical as goal setting and achieving?! Purpose is both external and internal. So to reach peak performance, it actually helps to take all of your feelings about work into account – like finding somewhere you feel is a good place to work or where you feel aligned with the culture and their way of working. Somewhere you can feel yourself making progress in the skills you enjoy using. Perhaps our intuition is all happening here, in our orbitofrontal cortex. Because this is where your brain will take your emotional data and use it to strengthen or weaken your ability to achieve your goals. 

So it’s not just about trying to save the external world if you want to find your purpose in life. You have to start by saving yourself and doing things you enjoy as much as possible in your work, things that feel like your natural strengths, and where you feel like you can develop those skills.

This is a mistake lots of people make as they leave the corporate world in search of greater fulfilment. We need to know ourselves first so we can find the kind of work we are made for. So are you a people person, or do you prefer communicating via email? Do you prefer working with people’s feelings and deep conversations or hard facts, logic and spreadsheets? Do you need to work with a team or do you prefer working on your own? Or are you a mix of some of those examples? Knowing these kinds of things about your internal world (your brain and nervous system) is huge if you want to truly lead with purpose – so it’s worth starting here as this is often a much trickier journey than simply finding a good cause – of which there is no shortage. There are so many ways we can all contribute to making the world a better place – however big or small. But if you want peak performance at work and to feel a real sense of purpose – you need to align your genuine internal feelings about the work you actually do with feeling genuinely good about the external result too. Like so many other things in life, it starts inside, with your own self-exploration – not outside. 

“Those who look outside dream. Those who look inside, awaken.”

— Carl Jung


Written by Alice Thompson, Purpose Coach & Social Bite Co-Founder

To find out more about Alice’s Purpose Coaching check out her website by clicking on the link.

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