On Motivation

Why do we do the things that we do? Because we are motivated to do so. But what motivates us? What makes us move? There are, it seems, two possible alternatives to this question. 1. Reasons 2. Mechanisms. The relationship between the two is confusing, at least to me.

Let us start with an example of an explanational schema.┬áLet us start with Freud,┬ábecause he is on my mind and people don’t talk about him as much as his legacy deserves. He is not popular, therefore I like him.

Freud was something of a biological determinist. He looked to bodily drives and impulses, to instincts and passions, for his explanations of human action. Hence the universality of his Oedipal complex, of penis envy, and the like. These were not constructs merely; they were concrete phases of human development, differing shapes the mind took in reaction to the near universal stimulants presented to it through its early development.

Where does that leave motivation? Well, if the biological motivations of human action are universal, Freud would have to explain our differing rationales for similar actions. He did so through the method of free association, whereby the analyst prompted a few questions, let the analysand talk and talk, gradually pealing back the layers of rationalization (a term coined by a psychoanalyst), ultimately revealing the true man under the armor of the Super Ego.

Freud’s answer, then, was that our explanations are not accurate in fact, but geared towards the expectations society places upon us, those we think society places upon us, and those we place upon ourselves. Ultimately, however, the reason we give for doing things is a veil, masking raw biological fact.

In his treatise on religion, Freud hits these same marks, postulating that religion, that myth is a comfort against the unexplainable. It makes the mysterious less frightening by imbuing it with human characteristics that we can understand, predict, control, or rebel against. It gives us hope. It gives us community. It keeps the uncontrolled Id at bay.

Is Freud right? What motivates us? As a student of history, I have been asking myself this question without coming to any kind of satisfactory answer.

Why did Herclius sail all the way from Spain, usurp the Byzantine throne, fight his way to the gates of the Persian capital as Constantinople lay besieged, vanquish Byzantium’s foes, and then do almost nothing when, at the end of his reign, the Muslims attacked? Historically, analysis has focused on perhaps his Roman patriotism, his religious fervor, his youthful zest compared to the atrophy of an old age gained in the wake of victory. Couple this with the youthful Islam against the fractured Christianity of the East, and you get your historical narrative.

But what does that really explain? Why did Heraclius do what he did? Because of his religious motivation. What caused that? His upbringing, maybe the Christian creed meshing with his mental constitution. What constitutes a mentality, and how do the words of others interact with that?

It is easy to say that rational causes rest on a foundation of biological processes. I write because I want to. I want to because the act of writing causes chemical X to react with chemical Y and yield outcome Z. But how does one interplay with the other? When I write even when it does not yield a positive chemical response, why do I write? Because of some repressed desire to punish myself? Does that come from a different chemical?

To ask how motivation splits into reason and mechanism and how those parts interact is, I suspect, the same as asking how man splits into mind and body, and then asking how one interacts with the other. Perhaps it is the wrong question to ask. Perhaps it is a false dichotomy.

Humans like to explain things. They do not like to have their explanations questioned or dissected. Or doubted. Freud faced much criticism manfully, honestly even, but psychoanalysis was still his baby, and not infrequently his rebuttals were witty but unable fully to grapple with the issue at hand. He has been criticized much too harshly for this. He was a much more astute methodologist than some give him credit for. Still, he had a worldview and brooking naysayers was not his natural bent.

How do we explain his defensiveness? With an assertion: humans like to explain things. And a corollary: they do not like to have their explanations criticized. What evidence do I have to support this? Experience. Anecdote. The authority of a blog. What caused this facet of human behavior? Evolution. Isn’t evolution just a long term manifestation of genetic change? Then how do genes motivate people? They imbue proclivities. How?

Magic. People do things because Magic.

Happy Easter.


3 thoughts on “On Motivation”

  1. When I was a senior in college I took one of my favorite 2 or 3 courses. It was entitled something like ‘Cellular Physiology’ (other contenders for best college course: Religions of the Middle East. History of Asia). I loved this course. It was all about delving deeper into the intricacies of the cell. Into the universe of organelles. Into the mechanisms of life. Deeper and deeper I was drawn in. My research project involved analyzing the Ribosome. I embraced this with vigor, staying late hours reading dusty journals (no internet then) but loving the increasing arcana of this micro-world. Until… Until I found my humanity assaulted by a conclusion increasingly hard to ignore. Humans were after all just complicated, segmented test-tubes. Shakespeare was just a random interaction of protein with ADP (cellular energy). Plato was just serotonin colliding with dopamine in an accidental way. Thomas More did not control his own decisions; perhaps the Mitochondria (purported to be organisms, alien life living symbiotically within our tissues) chose for him.
    I became worried and troubled with how to reconcile human spirit, the ‘historian’ in me with cellular science. I have probably wrestled with this ever since. Part of the fascination with Hari Seldon (psycho HISTORIAN) was as the projected end point of modern psychiatry as a science able to ‘adjust’ individual cells or circuits to attain desirable thoughts and actions. As a practicing psychiatrist I dabble in the magic of chemistry but am increasingly aware of the distance separating what I do with what Hari can do. Over the decades so many people have asked me for explanations. Even this morning, one patient: “What is the one sentence explanation why my son is gay”. Years ago I tried the Freudian explanations, then the Skinnerian rationale, then the chemical imbalance evasion. All clever. All unsustainable in the face of intelligent questioning by perhaps troubled but basically intelligent people.
    Hence as you say, the attraction of religion as a reasonable way of ending endless supposition and, ‘but wait, what if…’ metaphysics. Certainly I found myself spending far too much time on Ribosomes, then on there 50s subunit, then the 30s subunit, then next smaller and smaller. No end in sight.
    So I returned to boyhood heroes. Nelson. Jackson. Grant. Richard I. Not a lot of focus on why. Really more what to do, how to resolve kind of guys. This dovetailed somewhere along the line with the dreaded existentialists. Don’t know why; just gotta live my live; and, actually, I am responsible for my choices or actions.
    And so I am. As a doctor, as a husband, as a father and as a person I choose, I err, I learn and I try again.
    Magic: ‘the art of producing illusions’. Or producing delusions. Probably I am the pawn of those malicious mitochondria. But I choose the delusion that I am in control.

  2. Agreed: it’s worth it to at least act on the assumption of personal responsibility.

    My motivation comes from, as you said, the desire for an explanation — why am I (I.e.: where did I come from and where am I to go?)?

    Answering this question requires knowing the unknowable; far from a simple comfort, it entails relinquishing the illusion of control while accepting the role of personal responsibility. It involves the acceptance of an objective moral framework.

    As we thirst for water, we thirst to know ‘why’. A universal basic urge (need?) of humanity. I would venture to say that even mitochondria wouldn’t be so malicious as to torture us with the desire for the unattainable or nonexistent.

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