Theoretical challenges in the conceptualization of motivation in neuroscience: Implications for the bridging of neuroscience and psychoanalysis

Douglas F. Watt

in From the Couch to the Lab

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780199600526
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754753 | DOI:
Theoretical challenges in the conceptualization of motivation in neuroscience: Implications for the bridging of neuroscience and psychoanalysis

Show Summary Details


The nature of motivation, whatever it is in the mind/brain that moves us to act and behave in the myriad of confusing ways that human beings behave, remains a central challenge for neuroscience, and despite some progress, a subject of considerable confusion and mystery. Motivation is inexorably intertwined with an even larger mystery in neuroscience, namely, how the brain creates a conscious state. Motivation has to be intimately linked with organismic value, and to the mechanisms by which organisms attach values (positive or negative) to virtually all activities, stimuli, and situations. Motivation likely emerges originally from basic homeostatic mandates and their associated ‘regulatory imbalances’ (such elemental states as hunger, thirst, and pain) as core sources of organismic value. Over homeostasis proper, evolution appears to have placed prototype emotion, as a set of conserved routines for dealing with prototype survival and adaptive challenges, particularly in relation to other organisms (friend or foe). A recent typology for these prototype emotions (from Panksepp) includes fear, rage, separation distress, play, sexual desire, and maternal care. Prototype emotions may function to anticipate homeostatic and survival challenges ‘before the fact’, and may have been selected on that basis. Additionally, these various prototypes (as well as adaptive responses to hunger, thirst, or pain) require a more fundamental and more ancient system for generalized motivational arousal, which Panksepp has conceptualized as a basic SEEKING or ‘expectancy’ system. This system emerges out of the mesolimbic dopamine system, and centrally includes several basal forebrain structures, most critically the limbic (ventral) basal ganglia. This system may constitute a ‘central trunk line’ in which all the other prototypes are instantiated.

Although there are only a handful of these prototype emotional states, emotion is massively complicated in humans by its rich reciprocal interactions with cognition. Indeed, in most humans once past infancy, it is very difficult to find any emotional reaction that does not have complex cognitive modulators. In this sense, cognition serves to ‘gate’ (inhibit as well as arouse) emotion. Additionally, although homeostatic mandates typically trump virtually all other motivations, the human need for social connection and the maintenance of social bonds is so powerful a motivational system that humans will sometimes sacrifice their own homeostasis, giving their lives to preserve the lives of loved ones. This suggests that motivation rests on a shifting hierarchy of need states, in which ongoing competitions between potential pains and pleasures select potential behaviours, based on some version of a real-time ‘hedonic calculus’. Such an hedonic calculus is surely non-linear and must integrate and balance multiple levels of potentially competing organism need states with environmental opportunities, risks, and dangers. Pain and pleasure remain our ‘two sovereign masters’ as Bentham pointed out, roughly 100 years before Freud constructed a psychodynamic theory based on virtually identical core assumptions. However, we are far from mapping out the full implications of an heuristic working assumption that pains and pleasures of a wide variety must be fundamental currencies in the neural economy of a conscious state. Any deep understanding of consciousness in neural terms remains an elusive holy grail, a missing keystone in the arch for neuroscience, but a fuller understand of motivation remains a vital part of the quest for understanding sentience. Such a neuroscience must focus more attention on the mesodiencephalon and basal forebrain, and on the development of global forebrain–diencephalic –brainstem interactions in infancy.

Chapter.  13683 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.