“I know what I have to do – I just have to do it”.

Sound familiar?

Knowledge of diet and exercise fundamentals can help achieve a fitness goal. But what actually underpins behavioural change?

This article (part 1 of 2) shines a light on the glaring omission to the Nike phrase “just do it”: the neuroscience of mindset and motivation.

Here we’ll look at key findings from experts in the field so that you can understand how your brain actually works. Next week in part two we’ll build on this foundation and look at how you can take steps towards achieving your goals.

What is Motivation?

1/7 people in the UK are a gym-member. Past research also found 48% of Brits to have dieted in a single year (56% for women only).

Whether for aesthetics, general health or happiness – we are motivated by many things.

Your mindset is what determines whether that motivation sparks action.

You Are Only Human

Changing behaviour is hard. One minute you are motivated and the next in mental anguish. Why? To understand, let’s consider three perspectives on the brain, in the context of ‘getting in shape’:

Your brain has two systems

In Thinking Fast & Slow, Nobel Memorial Prize winner Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two modes of thought:

  • System 1: fast, instinctive and emotional
  • System 2: slower, more deliberative, and more logical

If you want to ‘get in shape’. Your conscious System 2 designs the rational nutrition and exercise route to get there. But when your motivation fades, it gives way to System 1 – emotional and prone to error. System 1 compels you to indulge short-term at the expense of your long-term goals.

Your brain has three teams

Steve Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox, divides the brain into three teams:

  • Chimp (limbic area – includes the amygdala): Independent, works with feelings and emotion
  • Human (the frontal lobe, led by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex): Conscious, thinking and analysing
  • Computer (parietal lobe): Acts automatically based on information stored from the Human and Chimp. It is programmed to take over if the Chimp or Human is asleep

In Peters’ simplified model of the brain, the role of the Computer (parietal lobe) is distinguished from the Chimp (comparable to Kahneman’s System 1) and Human (comparable to Kahneman’s System 2). Your Computer is where your hard-wired eating and exercise habits are stored. When demotivated, this is what you default to.

Your brain is a Democracy of Rivals

Neuro-scientist David Eagleman presents the brain as a complex neural network. As described in his book Incognito – Secret Lives of the Brain, we comprise a team of rivals – different neuronal areas in constant conflict to influence how we act.

Our conscious mind (Human or System 2) is just the tip of the iceberg. “Most of what we call thinking happens well under the surface of conscious control” Eagleman explains – “the conscious you is the smallest bit”. Beneath lies a multitude of “zombie” unconscious neural sub-systems.

That internal struggle – when you fight to resist but cannot help but indulge – is your neural sub-routines fighting for control.

What a perplexing masterpiece the brain is.


You Are Only Human: Habit

Lasting behavioural change demands new habits be formed. Setting your unconscious to a healthy default, while managing your Chimp and System 1, will unlock sustainable healthy living.

As neuroscientist Gabija Toleikyte explains: “the behavioral patterns we repeat most often are literally etched into our neural pathways. Habits die hard and making new ones can be tough but, through repetition, it’s possible to form new ones”.

The brain’s circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control – in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain – and that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids allow for habit to take over, by acting as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit.

What Now?

Two Systems, Three Teams or a Democracy of Rivals – what do all these theories tell us? There is more than one of you. 

In Part 2 coming next week, we build on this knowledge by introducing an actionable framework for behavioural change and ten mindset hacks to make it happen.