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Triad of Unconscious Motivation

Posted on September 26, 2014

This week I want to explore the role of unconscious motivation.  The better I understand the brain, the more it becomes clear that we operate primarily in our unconscious, driven by basic drives and motivations.  The science behind these unconscious drives helps us to better understand the behaviors of our clients.
In their book The Pleasure Trap, Lisle and Goldhammer present a model for understanding human motivation that occurs primarily at the unconscious level.  In the book, they make a convincing argument that we evolved our behaviors and thinking to avoid physical or psychological pain, to seek pleasure, and to do both in the most energy efficient way possible.  While this triad of motivation has served us well historically, it can also lead to many of the seemingly self-destructive behaviors we see exhibited by our traumatized clients.
Let’s look at each of these unconscious motivators.
Avoid Pain
Maybe the strongest motivator of all is the avoidance of pain.  In reality, pain is just electrical impulses in our brain telling us to get away from the thing causing these signals to fire.  Throughout life, we learn what causes pain and what to avoid, and these lessons take the form of long term memories.  These memories operate in collaboration with our unconscious to keep us from harm (i.e., once you learn a stove top is hot by touching it as a child, you don’t have to consciously remind yourself not to touch it every time you cook dinner).
Trauma is a powerful form of pain, often both emotional and physical.  The intensity of traumatic stress and pain can rewire the subconscious completely.  This is especially true with complex or repeated trauma, as this can dramatically impact the functioning of the victim’s unconscious.  Some harmless things (such as a car backfiring) can bring back memories of the trauma (a gunshot).  Conversely, some things that can cause harm (a violent romantic relationship) can seem normal due to past trauma (physical abuse by a parent). 
As with so many things, trauma can make a client’s relationship with pain misguided and dangerous to their future well-being.  Maybe the most tragic thing of all is that the person’s perception of pain is not conscious to them.  While it can be so evident to family members, friends, and us as helpers, the person themselves remains blind to the impact of their past on their present functioning.
Energy Efficiency
To understand how this misguided relationship to pain can become a way of life, we move to the second unconscious motivator, energy efficiency.  As we have discussed in previous posts, the brain is a greedy organ.  While it only accounts for around 2% of our body weight, it uses 25% of the blood sugar and oxygen we take in. 
In order to conserve energy, the brain has developed a predictive nature based on past experience and behavior.  This nature often manifests itself in habits.  Every time a habit is repeated, the brain structures which support the behavior are reinforced.  These structures, or synaptic connections, strengthen every time the behavior is repeated, and require less and less energy over time.
As time passes, these habits become unconscious.  I think the best example of this is commuting to work, parking the car, and realizing that you don’t remember anything about the drive.  Think about the complexity of driving, which requires a great amount of physical coordination, judgment on speed and space, and the navigation of social rules and interactions.  Yet, without conscious thought, our unconscious can take over and get us safely to work. 
Due to energy efficiency, we live primarily in our past, filtered through our unconscious perception of the present.  While this reality helps us navigate the world efficiently, for those with traumatic pasts this efficiency often leads to negative habits and a reactive way of interacting with the world.  Combined with the motivation to avoid pain, this drive for efficiency often leads to destructive habits and behaviors that often go against the norms of “normal” society, leaving those people isolated and in continuing cycles of trauma and pain.
Seek Pleasure
Just as we have an unconscious drive to move away from pain, we have an equally powerful desire to move towards pleasure.  This drive has served humanity well, leading us to eat food that sustained us in times of scarcity and to reproduce, creating the next generation.  Unfortunately, these same drives can result in obesity and addiction.
For our traumatized clients, this motivation can be greatly exaggerated.  One of the best descriptions of addiction I have heard demonstrates this reality.  This explanation uses a life satisfaction scale, where a 10 is living a full and happy life and a 1 is an existence plague by depression and hopelessness. 
For someone who lives life around an 8, drugs, sex, food, and other potentially addictive behaviors can only raise life satisfaction two points.  Taking drugs or having sex would still bring pleasure, but it isn’t needed to enjoy life, as their baseline is already high.  While it is not unheard of for someone at an 8 to become an addict, it is definitely the exception.
For those at the other end of the scale, let’s say someone at a 2, pleasurable and potentially addictive activities can drastically improve one’s experience of life.  A pleasurable feeling, no matter how brief, of being at a 7 or 8 is much more powerful for someone whose life is usually dominated by pain and hurt.  This scale helps explain why those with traumatic pasts are at a much greater risk of developing addictive behaviors.
It is important for us to remember that these motivations are, for the most part, unconscious.  Loss of choice is one of the many losses experienced by victims of trauma.  As focus is shifted to surviving, the mind’s ability to recognize these impulses becomes limited.  In addition, when the impulses are recognized, there often is not the capacity to control them. 

Once again, we return to the importance of mindfulness.  As helpers, we help our clients see the impact of their behaviors.  This insight is the first step to change.  The journey from insight to change is a difficult one, as the brain must change to support new healthier behaviors.  Next week’s post will examine how we can use these same motivators to help our clients make positive changes in their lives.  

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