The Neuroscience of Goals

The Neuroscience of Goals

Always returning to the neuroscience. Not simply because we’re nerds (though it’s true, we are), but because understanding the neuroscience gives us an inside view of what makes us “tick.” Traveling the metaphorical (and literal) paths of neuroscience—the neural connections and receptors and itty bitty neurotransmitters—shows us why we do what we do, and how we eventually change that.

Today, we focus on two of the structures highly involved in goal setting: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Though we’ve spoken extensively about the PFC, we haven’t spent much time on the amygdala, have we? This is a really interesting structure located in some of the lower segments of the brain, and it regulates many aspects of our behavior, specifically memory, emotions, and motivation. When I was in school, my professor told us to remember the amygdala as the “oh my God” center (they sound similar, don’t they?), because it’s where our surprise, fear, excitement, and many more emotions come from.

In many ways, a goal begins in the amygdala. Before we can ever conceptualize, articulate a goal, it forms as this little spark in our lower motivational structures. Here, the amygdala decides the direction and intensity of the goal—how bad do we want it? From there, we move back into our higher brain functioning and nail down the details in the PFC. We’re able to organize the steps required to achieve our goal, the parameters that allow us to measure our progress, and the timeline all in our Prefrontal Cortex. (After all, this center is responsible for planning and decision making.) When we run into barriers or have difficulty moving forward, our goals head back to the amygdala where we decide if it’s worth it, all over again.

These two structures work together, back and forth, to steadily work towards our goals. They may reevaluate our end-goal, or change the steps along the way, or even decide that we just don’t want the goal enough to put the work in. Our brain is beautifully intuitive and often knows what’s better for us than we know ourselves—it’s constantly calibrating and calculating.

Perhaps you feel as if you never complete your goals, like you’re always one step away from the end result. This might point back to the amygdala—maybe the goals that you’ve set are not worth it to your brain’s driving forces. If so, then we really hone in on what sort of goals really light us up, motivate us, and move us forward. (This has the added benefit of allowing us to start achieving goals, which builds self-efficacy and the belief that we can accomplish other goals—it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Alternatively, if you find you’re frequently motivated towards a goal but unable to achieve it, perhaps the organizational piece is off. If we identify that we have these big, beautiful goals that feel very worthwhile, but we’re not achieving them, perhaps we need to dig into the steps it takes to achieve the goal. The parameters of success, the small wins it takes to get to the larger goal.

Today, consider the balance between these two functions of the brain in relation to goal setting. Does it help you understand and organize your current goals better? Does it inspire you to change your goals in any way?

Amunts K, Kedo O, Kindler M, Pieperhoff P, Mohlberg H, Shah NJ, Habel U, Schneider F, Zilles K (December 2005). "Cytoarchitectonic mapping of the human amygdala, hippocampal region and entorhinal cortex: intersubject variability and probability maps". Anatomy and Embryology. 210 (5–6): 343–52. doi:10.1007/s00429-005-0025-5.

James, G. (2019, October 23). What Goal-Setting Does to Your Brain and Why It's Spectacularly Effective.