Tag Archives: motivation

The dope on Dopamine

I just finished reading Kelly McGonigal‘s The Willpower InstinctIt is a fascinating look at the psychology and physiology behind our ability to control our actions. In the book talk below, McGonigal discusses some of the research covered in her book.

But it isn’t willpower I want to write about; it’s what I learned about DOPAMINE. Dopamine is the culprit behind folks with Parkinson’s Disease having movement and balance issues. More precisely, it is the lack of dopamine that poses the problem. Back in  May, 2007, when I first began blogging about the brain in order to learn about how it functions, I wrote a post about dopamine.

McGonigal has added to my understanding of dopamine. She describes the neurotransmitter as kicking in in anticipation of a reward. That reward can be anything that makes you feel good.

Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself–the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling.

When there is insufficient dopamine, besides impacting movement and balance, the brain’s natural reward system feels a sense of apathy, according to McGonigal. She goes on to say that in Parkinson’s patients, while this state may pass for peacefulness, it is actually depression.

What further fascinated me was her explanation of the potential negative effects of dopamine drug therapy on people with Parkinson’s.

The standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease is a two-drug combo: L-dopa, which helps the brain make dopamine, and a dopamine agonist, which stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain to mimic the action of dopamine. When patients begin drug therapy, their brains are flooded with way more dopamine than they’ve seen in a long time. This relieves the main symptoms of the disease, but also creates new problems that no one expected.

Medical journals are full of case studies documenting the unintended side effects of these drugs.

McGonigal then describes one person who “developed insatiable [food] cravings”, another person who “developed a daily gambling habit”, and yet another who “all of sudden found himself afflicted with an increased appetite, a taste for alcohol, and what his wife called ‘an excessive sex urge’…All of these cases were completely resolved by taking the patients off the dopamine-enhancing drug.”

Essentially, it seems that as with much in life, there needs to be a balance in the amount of dopamine your brain processes.

For more on Parkinson’s and dopamine, see my previous posts:

Wow, it’s been 5 years.

Five years of blogging. Still interested in the brain, but I’ve expanded, not uncommon when given the freedom to follow ideas wherever they lead.

Some months I am prolific, other months rather quiet. For awhile there were some wonderful folks who were regular commenters, but I let down my end of the blogger’s bargain – I stopped commenting on other people’s blogs!

My threads have included the physiology of the brain, thoughts about schooling, professional development for faculty, human anatomy, workshops on: learning-the brain-the arts-yoga, posts for SharpBrains.com, and more recently, the aging process.

In several weeks I will begin a new tack for my teaching career. For the past 30 years I have thought of myself professionally as a computer teacher and facilitator of professional development for faculty. Beginning in June, I will take on the role of lower school STEM Integrator, focusing on the “T” – technology. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.)

I am excited to switch mental gears to become part of a new community of learners, and to explore learning from a different perspective.

Yeehah! It’s been five years, and the next five are wide open for discovery! To anyone who has stopped by to read and ponder for a bit, thank you for visiting. I hope you’ve gone away with something to nourish your ideas or answer your questions.

(First post: April 4, 2007 – Calendar)


Entangled and entwined. The brain and the body. They need and feed upon each other. So it is with the meshing of my interests.

I began this blog as “the graduate course I’d love to take if it existed as a program and was local to where I live.” My plan was to learn as much as possible about the brain, beginning with its physiology, as compiled in Brain 101.

The more I learned about the brain, the more I began to associate ideas and information with the practice of learning and teaching. After all, I had been teaching children and adults for many years (this is the start of my 30th year!) and it seemed about time that I consciously considered the underpinnings of those processes.

From there my interests morphed into professional development and, specifically, adult learning and keeping the aging brain healthy, creative and stimulated. I thoroughly and emphatically enjoy planning and providing learning opportunities for adults. This is quite selfish, actually. I feel good when I can help empower others. I feel good when I have a creative challenge (to plan and provide the PD). I feel good when I can help adults enhance their brain health.

However, the brain does not live in a vacuum, so it was simply a matter of time before my interest in the human body – the receptacle housing the brain and very much involved in a co-dependent relationship – manifested itself. Seven years of practicing yoga (for stress relief, for comfort, for physical and mental well-being) collided gently and smoothly with my interest in the brain and human anatomy. More selfishness. I feel good when I can help kids and adults understand their brains and their bodies, and improve their overall health.

Meshed. Meshing.

And wouldn’t you know it…this is my 400th Neurons Firing post. Gotta’ love those round numbers!

It all began with a BASIC program…

Back in college (1980s) I took a programming class in BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). This was not my first attempt at learning to program.

Some years earlier, at another college, I had taken a programming class and flunked it. Most likely the language of study was APL (A Programming Language), at least my memory is alighting on that language, probably because my *boyfriend’s brother, who was a student at the same college, was an APL programmer. In any case, whatever the programming language, it annoyed me to not be able to write a computer program. True, math and logic were not my strong interests, but still it seemed I should be able to write a computer program.

Some years later, I took that class in BASIC and aced the course. I loved being able to write programs that controlled what the computer did. I loved even more being presented with a program that did not work as planned, and having to debug it. I felt like a detective, sleuthing through code to find the reason for and location of that errant logic or typo. My programs were often lengthier than necessary because I filled them with comments to explain what the code was intended to do. Each time I wrote a program and picked up the pages of output (we would be given the code as well as the results), my brain lit up with glee, sending me bursts that said “A regular (i.e. non-math) person like me can **program!” I felt “smart”.

Soon afterwards, the professor who taught me BASIC guided me to, and recommended me for my first teaching job. She had taught at St Ann’s School and knew they were looking to hire a computer teacher. I had gone to her with my wide-eyed question: What should I do upon graduating college? She replied with the most important question of all, “What do you like to do?”  My response was: I like kids and I like computers. The rest is history.

And so, when I received an email describing Ben Chun’s “How did you learn to program?” project, a wave of memories cascaded through my mind, and I had no choice but to respond to his prompt of “I learned to program…

* My boyfriend has been my husband for the past 33 years. 🙂
** The languages, and applications with their own programming language, that I went on to teach include: BASIC, Logo, Pascal, HyperCard, MicroWorlds, ActionScript in Flash, and most recently Scratch, plus a brief stint studying (but not teaching) a little bit of JAVA .

Quest for a Community of Practice

Jane McGonigal, in Reality is Broken, notes that among well-designed games there is always some sort of quest.

A quest is a journey to accomplish a task. Completing the quest often provides the participant, in this case the gamer, with a sense of satisfaction. And the more epic the quest, the more satisfying the accomplishment. The game design typically impacts the motivation of the person playing, and most of the better designed games inspire intrinsic motivation on the part of the gamer.

The other day, @alexragone tweeted:

@brainbits @fredbartels Just got to the player investment design lead in #realityisbroken How can we design OPuS courses with this in mind?

OPuS is the Online Progressive unSchool being developed by Fred, and he describes it as:

an education environment in which learners work together to discover and develop what Ken Robinson calls their element, or what many of us call, their passion.

OPuS supports communities of practice in which teachers and students with shared interests collaborate to develop mastery of their chosen element, and as part of that process, work to make the world a better place.

Additional information about OPuS is available in this Prezi. (By the way, Fred replied to Alex that OPuS is Communities of Practice, not courses.)

Alex’s tweet got me thinking about Fred’s description, and how it meshes with much of what Jane McGonigal describes as being the important factors in game design. The “player investment design lead” refers to a job description at the game designer Bungie, of Halo fame. The person in this position

directs a group of designers responsible for founding a robust and rewarding investment path, supported by consistent, rich and secure incentives that drive player behavior toward having fun and investing in their characters and then validates those systems through intense simulation, testing and iteration. (page 244)

McGonigal concludes that, based upon the job description above, the goal is to design a game in such a way that “participants should be able to explore and impact a ‘world’, or shared social space that features both content and interactive opportunities.” She then notes the additional characteristics of such a game:

  • participants will be able to create and develop a unique identity
  • participants will see the bigger picture
  • the only reward is participation in good faith
  • the emphasis is on making the content and experience intrinsically rewarding

Hmm, a well designed community of practice has a guide to steer the process. The members of the community are self-selecting participants because they share an interest in a particular passion and know that by participating they will enhance both their own and everyone else’s understanding of the topic. The participation happens individually and collaboratively, in physical spaces and interactive virtual social spaces. And the quest to learn is its own reward.

In another tweet, @alexragone wrote:

More on definition of student engagement:  https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Student_engagement#Indicators#isedchat

Sounds to me like a well-designed game and a community of practice share many of the traits that encourage student engagement.

Got Game? Got Reality?

For five days in a row I was wakened by the phone ringing early in the morning, someone on the other end gleefully stating: School is closed due to a snow day. It was winter 1993 or 1994, and we had a week of knee deep snow. For me, this meant a week of total immersion in Myst, played on our Macintosh LC 520 (our first Mac).

Equipped with my computer, the game, the journal, and my telephone, I spent hours upon hours navigating the terrain of this beautifully developed graphic world, searching for and solving the myriad puzzles, and taking detailed notes about where I was, what I was doing, and what I uncovered. While I was busy in my world of Myst, colleagues and students were busy on their home computers exploring their world of Myst. Anytime any one of us was stumped, help was just a phone call away. We were collectively immersed in this digital world that was playing out individually on each of our own computers; yet our collaborative problem solving was making this digital world seem real.

When we eventually returned to school the following week, we would stop and talk about Myst, sharing tales and descriptions that were equally familiar to each of us, as if we had all vacationed at the same resort. We acknowledged that tremendous satisfaction had come from uncovering and solving puzzles, from our telephone collaborations, and from having this shared yet individual experience.

Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, describes 25 games that are immersive, collaborative and require problems to be solved. While these types of digital gaming are not new – as a teenager, our older son was attending and hosting lanfests in the late 1990s – McGonigal posits using digital gaming for social good, and all the games she lists are examples of her gaming-fix for a broken reality. (I am already imagining an upper school class on social responsibility, collaborative problem solving, the psychology of motivation and change…using McGonigal’s book along with Nudge and Drive.)

What fascinates me about her book is the discussion of gaming and the brain, specifically the positive feelings that game playing can produce and the role of intrinsic motivation. All these years later, I can still recall the euphoria felt while playing Myst.

McGonigal has done her research (noted throughout the book), and when it comes to intrinsic rewards she has concluded there are four categories. Here, from page 49, are the first lines of each of her four descriptions:

First and foremost, we crave satisfying work, every single day.

Second, we crave the experience, or at least the hope, of being successful.

Third, we crave social connection.

Fourth, and finally, we crave meaning, or the chance to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

She goes on to note that These four kinds of intrinsic rewards are the foundation for optimal human experience. Of course, it is not always easy or simple for people to engineer their lives to be filled with intrinsic motivation and the resulting intrinsic rewards.

Over the past four years I have explored the idea of motivation, and was reminded of a 2007 post that mentions a psychology book in use at the University of Purdue. The author, Edward Vockell, includes a chart on Intrinsic Motivation that smoothly meshes with the points McGonigal makes about the benefits of gaming.

Ultimately, McGonigal’s belief is that playing immersive, well-designed, collaborative games crafted to promote social well-being can help people to harvest more moments of intrinsic satisfaction and, at the same time, help solve some of the pressing, pending social, economic and climate issues facing the world.

As for my thought about an upper school class – hmm, organizing it in a way to attract gamers, playing the games referenced in McGonigal’s book, reading other books, reflecting, discussing and tapping into the experiences and hopes of these teens…

[April 26, 2011 UPDATE: John Hunter, who is a teacher among his many endeavors, has created the World Peace Game, a simulation that his 4th graders engage in to “explore the connectedness of the global community through the lens of the economic, social, and environmental crises and the imminent threat of war.” He gives a TED Talk about the game which gave me (good) chills as I listened.]