The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation

A new paper by Di Domenico & Ryan (2017) describes how a neuroscience of intrinsic motivation is emerging. Intrinsic motivation is the total of our spontaneous tendencies to be curious and interested, to seek challenges, and practice to develop our skills and knowledge even in the absence of separate rewards. Research within the framework of self-determination theory has shown that intrinsic motivation is a motivation which is present throughout the life span and which is associated with various positive effects such as learning, performing, creativity, and well-being. But intrinsic motivation is dependent on the perception of one's own competence and autonomy. If these two basic needs are thwarted, we tend to be less intrinsically motivated.

Brief history of the intrinsic motivation concept

First, the article presents a clear explanation of the emergence of the intrinisc motivation concept and explains commonalities and differences with several related psychological concepts. It explains that Harlow (1953) introduced the term intrinsic motivation and that he demonstrated that intrinsic motivation in rhesus monkeys can be undermined by giving them rewards. Deci (1971) did a classical experiment which demonstrated this effect in people and which is one of the cornerstone experiments  of self-determination theory. The article further explains how intrinsic motivation is at odds with the basic premise of behaviorism (Skinner, 1953) and with drive theories (Hull, 1943). A crucial step in the development of the intrinsic motivation concept was the publication of White (1959) which proposed the concept of effectance motivation as a general behavioral and developmental propensity and which formed the basis of one of the central concepts in self-determination theory: the need for competence. Also mentioned is the important publication of DeCharms (1968) which suggested that intrinsic motivation is rooted in the need of people to see themselves as the primary causal agents of their own actions. This publication formed the basis of one of the other central concepts of self-determination theory: the need for autonomy.

Neuroscientific research into intrinsic motivation

The central contribution of the article is the description of the emergence of a neuroscientific approach to intrinsic motivation research. This could lead to a more complete and more detailed picture of the conceptual meaning and workings of intrinsic motivation and it could stimulate new theory development. Up to now there are two clear lines of research. The first is aimed at understanding the relationship between intrinsic motivation and the dopaminergic systems in the brain. There is a clear conceptual link between intrinsic motivation and the dopamingeric system (dopamine is neurotransmitter which is associated with experiencing pleasure) but as yet there are only a few studies which have show clear empirical evidence for the link. The second line of research explores the relationship between intrinsic motivation and the activity of large-scale networks in the brain associated with salience detection, attentional control, and self-referential cognition.

This type of research has already led to one suggestion for further theory development. Up to now intrinisc motivation has been primarily connected to curiosity and mastery -mainly cognitive aspects- but research has shown that many forms of play have similar neurobiological underpinnings. More socially focused forms of exploration such as playing games, humor, and doing sports may thus be viewed as intrinsically motivated forms of socialization. The third psychological need, the need for relatedness, may thus play a more important role in the expression of intrinsic motivation than was previously thought.


  1. A different view of intrinsic motivation based on processes of nervous system control systems is provided by Perceptual Control Theory (PCT). According to this theory, the body has a number of basic intrinsic references for physiological states essential to one's survival. When neural perceptual signals differ from intrinsic reference signals, differences called an error signal are produced that lead to outputs (muscular/glandular) aimed at reducing error signals being produced, thereby helping to maintain one's survival. For details, see William Powers, "Behavior: The Control of Perception" (1973/2005) or other publications about PCT such as "Living Control Systems III: The Fact of Control" by Powers (2008).

    1. Hi Richard. thank you for your reply. I had not heard about PCT. I have scanned this wikipedia entry on the topic: In that entry I did not find the term 'intrinsic motivation'.

  2. Hi Coert,
    in this context I frequently use Ben Furman's and Tapani Ahola's described '5 factors for intrinsic motivation' (2007, Change through cooperation, Helsinki Brief Therapy Institute). I find them very helpful as a way of checking where my clients are with their motivation, and/or helping them towards them, when one or more of these factors are not yet achieved. Especially no. 5 has proved to be valuable in my work with teenagers.
    1. a feeling of free choice
    2. a sense of value (advantages, benefits, internal and external, even for others)
    3. a sense of confidence (feeling competent or able to achieve learning)
    4. a sense of progressing (even if slow or small successes)
    5. being prepared to deal with possible setbacks (as a normal part of any learning process)

    1. Hi Caroline, While I like the 5 questions, they are not all specifically about intrinsic motivation, as it is described in the scientific literature.


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