The Role of the Brain in Self-regulation and Motivation

The brain is the most vital of all the human organs. It plays a part of every body system, controlling both the conscious and unconscious flow of life. While its role is undeniable and central, scientists have only recently begun to explore and map the multitudes of capabilities. The brain is a special organ because not only does it have a hand in every bodily function that is performed, but it also makes us who we cognitively are. It houses our personality, emotions, and motivation and is critical in the regulation of these.

It is widely known that the Central Nervous System (CNS) produces neurological responses to emotions. For example, when we are happy, our brains produce dopamine. If emotions have hormonal responses in the brain, then the regulation of emotions, or controlling your emotions can be a difficult task. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to delay outward emotional reactions until further processing can be done. Emotions also play an important role in memory and memory’s retention. This is why we have vivid memories of milestone events in our life. Hormones in the brain called Epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted by the adrenal complex to help aid in working and long-term memory (Schunk, 2012). This being said, research is beginning to link this how students are learning in the classroom. Teachers should seek to engage students on an emotional level so that their brain can produce neurotransmitters which store learned memory better than simple repetition. An activity that would benefit the facilitation of emotion and therefore memory is to have students write a story about anything they want. Then, after grouping students together, switch the stories around and have students take turns acting out the other children’s stories. This activity is multifaceted and should engage students emotionally during the writing and acting process as well as the process of watching their work be performed. Students may not remember every part of the activity, but they are bound to emotionally connect with at least one part of it.

Similar to emotions, motivation is controlled by the CNS. Motivation, or the process by which we work towards and achieve goals, is, for the most part, a cognitive process but the brain has biological ways of regulating it. Motivation can be broken down into two different parts: motivational states and rewards (Schunk, 2012). Motivational states are the mental connections made through emotions, thoughts, and actions that are every changing. Rewards help to facilitate these motivational states. Rewards are reinforcements for certain behaviors. They involve the interaction of many parts of the brain. As mentioned before, dopamine is a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and happiness. When a reward is imminent or perceived to be, dopamine is released and the brain experiences pleasure. This is almost like a natural high that is sought after when attempting to accomplish goals. The best activity that a teacher can do to encourage facilitate motivation and the active pursuit of goals, is to help students map and track their own personal goals. Have students create their own goal, estimate the timeline it would take to accomplish it, and have students practice constructing a graphic organizer or timeline to reflect their goals. Each step of this process is an accomplishment of a smaller goal leading up to them accomplishing their final, personal goal. If humans are hardwired to desire the dopamine released during the goal achieving process and after, then this activity will keep them constantly working towards finishing their goal and actively choosing to continue its pursuit.


Dale H. Schunk. (2012). Learning Theories An Educational Perspective, MA:: Pearson Education, Inc.


By: S. Blaney (2016)

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