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The Psychology & (Neuro)science of pursuing and achieving Goals

Setting intentions and reaching goals is not unique to just human beings. All species do achieve goals in their way. Consider a honeybee that leaves the hive in search of nectar. She flies off, searches, drinks the discovered nectar, and then returns home to the hive to deposit that liquid gold in one of many hexagonal cells for consumption or the inevitable churning into honey. The intention was to find nectar. The achievement was bringing it home to the hive.


What is particularly unique to human beings, relative to other species, is the fact that we can have both simultaneous and intertwining goals. One of the reasons for this is our ability to switch between where and how we mentally orient ourselves in the world. From being internally focused on self and the peri-personal experience (everything inside of us) versus being externally focused on the extra-personal space (everything outside of us). This cognitive switching between internal and external, is regulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin, and is critical for goal attainment.


Toggling between a) what we have and how we feel in the present moment, and b) our ability to understand what’s in the extra-personal space and move into that space allows us to know what we want, set achievable goals, identify meaningful milestones to evaluate our progress, and adjust the plan along the way. Importantly, neural circuitry plays a meaningful role here.


NEUROSCIENCE OF GOAL PURSUIT


Research in neuroscience has found that there is only one neural network responsible for setting, seeking, assessing, and updating all goals (no matter what they are). This neural network is made up of four regions of the brain:

  • Amygdala - responsible for regulating our emotions (e.g., fear, anxiety, avoidance of punishment, embarrassment),

  • Ventral Striatum (part of the Basal Ganglia) - responsible for initiating (or abstaining from) action (i.e., “go”/ “no go”),

  • Lateral Prefrontal Cortex - responsible for executive functioning (like thinking, planning, and orienting to timescale),

  • Orbitofrontal Cortex - responsible for blending the emotionality of our current state of progress with our proximity to the goal.


These four brain regions are responsible for 1) how we assess the value of the goal we’ve set (“Is this really worth pursuing?”), 2) establishing a plan, and 3) taking action. Remember that the value (or importance) of a goal can change at any point in time.  


WHAT ABOUT NEUROTRANSMITTERS?


The primary neuromodulator system that governs goal setting, seeking, assessing, and valuation of our pursuit is dopamine. Dopamine is commonly thought of as the chemical of pleasure, but it’s actually the molecule of motivation. Dopamine generally gets released into our systems when something positive and novel occurs, but there are unique nuances about when and how much gets released.


For example…

  • If something unexpectedly positive happens then a lot of dopamine gets released.

  • If we expect something positive to occur, then dopamine is first released as part of the anticipation for that event. Then, when the event occurs, more dopamine gets released, but because of the presence of the anticipatory dopamine, the effect of the second release doesn’t feel as dramatic to us, subjectively.

  • Conversely, if we expect something positive to happen but it doesn’t, then we see a significant drop in dopamine (below original baseline level).


This is helpful to know for when we’re ready to set goal milestones. If we set milestones and rewards too far out, then our dopamine levels could drop too low and decrease our overall motivation toward the end goal. Dopamine is a self-amplifying system which means that it provides a natural state of motivation and readiness in pursuit of our goals. It’s also used to manufacture epinephrine and norepinephrine which furthers our sense of readiness for action. Knowing this, choosing a time-based reward system at intervals that make the most sense for you is vital.  


NEUROPLASTICITY


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in response to experience and underlies all forms of learning no matter what it is. It’s essentially responsible for the re-organization of connections within the nervous system. When we make errors (or experience “failures”) along the way toward our goal, neuroplasticity is responsible for increasing our emotional response to those failures in order to increase attention and focus so that subsequent attempts at an action are more successful. But this can backfire if we “fail” more than 15% of the time, which is why setting challenging (but achievable) goals is absolutely critical.


WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO CREATE MEANINGFUL & ACHIEVABLE GOALS?


1.      Setting moderate goals are best. Nothing too easy, nor too lofty.

2.      Aim to set 1-2 big goals, at most. Even though we can multi-task, our brain and body systems get overwhelmed with too many concurrent action steps.

3.      Plan concretely. Meaning, set clear and specific actions and milestones so assessing your progress and achievement is straightforward.

4.      Identify consistent timepoints to evaluate overall progress and be sure to give yourself regular cognitive and physical rewards to reinforce dopamine (e.g., “great job!” “you’re on the right track”, etc.).

 

TAKE ACTION



References:

  • Balcetis E, Riccio MT, Duncan DT, Cole S. (2020). Keeping the Goal in Sight: Testing the Influence of Narrowed Visual Attention on Physical Activity. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 46(3):485-496. doi: 10.1177/0146167219861438.

  • Huberman, A. (2022). The Science of Setting & Achieving Goals. Huberman Lab Podcast, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1F7EEGPQwo.

  • Schultz W. (1998). Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons. J Neurophysiol., 80(1):1-27. doi: 10.1152/jn.1998.80.1.1.

  • Wilson RC, Shenhav A, Straccia M, Cohen JD. (2019). The Eighty Five Percent Rule for optimal learning. Nat Communications, 10(1):4646. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-12552-4.

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