Fire in the belly

by Anne-Marie Cziko, Ph.D. Neuroscientist

Scientists have long puzzled over what makes humans driven to do things. Are we motivated by fear, money, love, approval of others? Especially perplexing is why people would take on immense, labor-intensive and likely to fail projects when there is little to no monetary or other evident gain. The Watts Tower is a great example here in Los Angeles.

Neuroscientists have an answer, and it lies in the activity pattern of dopamine producing cells in the brain—cells that are responsible for making challenge and exploration feel pleasurable. These cells release the most amount of dopamine when you have a 50/50 chance of reaching your goal. They fire more intensely during experimentation and cause us to be curious about the unknown. These behaviors it turns out were important for the survival of our ancestors. 

Dopamine cells are also much busier when you are chasing your goal than once you have reached it. Once you’ve climbed that mountain, written that song, received that promotion, dopamine activity decreases. 

This is the physiological mechanism that requires challenge and risk for us to reach our maximum performance potential. Creative and new ideas are inherently risky. Innovation requires risk. A cozy office and nice co-workers will go a long way to get people to show up to work. But in order to get "fire in the belly,” creative risk must be knit into the fabric of your organization.