From Mental Masturbation to Motivation: Translating Dreams into Reality through the Power of Neuroscience

Self Help

July 11, 2023

From Mental Masturbation to Motivation: Translating Dreams into Reality through the Power of Neuroscience

The process of raising dopamine levels in your brain by telling people your goals, plans, and how you want to change, but never actually doing anything about it.

"Mental masturbation," described in the statement above, is a colloquial term to denote the practice of frequently discussing one's goals, plans, and intended changes with others without actually taking action towards those ends. This process can indeed stimulate the brain's reward pathways, leading to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, producing a pleasurable sensation akin to that of achieving the goal itself. However, this practice can also be a stumbling block towards real action and achievement.

The Neuroscience Behind It

The neuroscience behind the concept you mentioned, often called "mental masturbation," involves understanding the brain's reward system and the role of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter.

The Brain's Reward System

The brain's reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for desire, pleasure, and reinforcement learning. These circuits are critical in promoting survival by rewarding behaviors necessary for continued existence, such as eating, drinking, and social interaction. This reward system can also be stimulated by more complex ideas or thoughts, such as envisaging a goal or receiving social approval.

Critical structures in this reward system include the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), Nucleus Accumbens, and the Prefrontal Cortex:

  1. Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA): This is a group of neurons located in the midbrain, one of the brain's primary dopamine-producing areas. Neurons in the VTA send dopamine to various brain parts, including the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex.

  2. Nucleus Accumbens: Often referred to as the brain's "pleasure center," this area plays a crucial role in reward, pleasure, and reinforcement learning. It's where dopamine from the VTA is received, and this transmission plays a central role in the reward circuit's response to rewarding stimuli.

  3. Prefrontal Cortex: This part of the brain involves decision-making, impulse control, and behavior adaptation. Dopamine release in the prefrontal cortex plays a role in experiencing pleasure and motivation.

** Book Recommendation: Dopamine Nation - Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence

Dopamine and Its Role

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that transmits signals in the brain. It's produced in several brain areas, including the substantia nigra and the VTA.

Dopamine is often called the "feel-good" neurotransmitter because of its association with pleasurable sensations. It plays a vital role in the brain's reward system, contributing to feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person to perform certain activities proactively.

In the context of "mental masturbation," discussing your goals and aspirations, especially when met with social approval, can stimulate the brain's reward system, leading to dopamine release. That gives you a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, and motivation, making you feel you've already achieved the goal. That is because your brain has already associated the pleasure response with the action of discussing your plans.

However, the brain's reward system is not just about pleasure. It also includes negative aspects like aversion, which can be motivated by actions leading to discomfort or pain. Balancing these two extremes is crucial for maintaining healthy motivation toward goal-directed behavior.

The neuroscience behind "mental masturbation" lies in how our brain's reward system, driven by dopamine, reacts to the anticipation of rewards (in this case, the attainment of a goal or change). This reaction can create a sense of pleasure and achievement, even if the plan hasn't been reached. A complex interplay of neurotransmitters, neural structures, and social and environmental factors contribute to this phenomenon.

** Book Recommendation: Dopamine Nation - Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence

The Pitfalls

While this process might sound enjoyable, it comes with significant downsides. The main problem is that the premature sense of satisfaction derived from talking about our intentions could decrease our motivation to turn those intentions into reality. Psychologically, this can be linked to a phenomenon called 'substitution,' where talking about a goal creates a social reality that can substitute for the actual attainment of the goal.

The mental and emotional energy consumed in discussing and fantasizing about goals can also lead to ego depletion - a state of mental exhaustion where self-control and willpower are drained, further undermining efforts to act towards goal realization.

Moreover, this repetitive cycle of planning and discussion without action can become a form of procrastination or self-handicapping, where the individual avoids confronting potential failure or challenging aspects of their goal.


The process of moving from discussion to action involves a combination of goal-setting, behavioral change, cognitive reframing, and self-regulation. A wealth of scientific research is exploring these topics, providing practical insights into how one can make this transition.

Set Concrete Goals

The first step in taking action is setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. Research has consistently shown that concrete, well-defined goals are more likely to be achieved than abstract ones. For example, instead of setting a vague goal like "I want to get fit," a SMART goal would be "I want to run 5 kilometers in under 30 minutes within the next three months."

Shift Focus from Outcome to Process

Motivation research science suggests that shifting focus from outcomes (e.g., "I want to write a book") to processes (e.g., "I will write for an hour each day") can promote action. This shift can reduce performance anxiety and enhance task engagement, making doing more enjoyable.

Establish Implementation Intentions

Studies suggest that people who plan where and when to perform a new behavior (implementation intentions) are more likely to follow through. For example, if your goal is to eat more healthily, you could set an implementation intention such as, "If it is lunchtime, then I will eat a salad."

Utilize Mental Contrasting

Mental contrasting, a strategy developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, involves vividly imagining a desired outcome and then visualizing the potential obstacles that stand in the way. This technique can boost motivation and promote action by linking the future (the goal) with the present (the steps needed to achieve it).

Self-Regulation and Self-Reflection

Understanding and managing your thought patterns, emotional responses, and behaviors (self-regulation) are crucial in moving from discussion to action. Techniques such as mindfulness meditation can enhance self-regulation by promoting a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.

Furthermore, regular self-reflection can help identify patterns of "mental masturbation," understand their triggers and develop strategies to break the cycle.

Use Social Support for Accountability

Sharing your progress rather than just your plans with others can turn social reality from a stumbling block into a stepping stone. For example, a study found that public commitment, such as posting updates on social media, could increase the likelihood of goal achievement. This strategy leverages social expectation as a motivator for action.

Rewarding Actual Progress

Neuroscientific research shows that rewarding actual progress can help rewire the brain to release dopamine (the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter) in response to tangible achievement rather than just discussing plans. This reward could be as simple as acknowledging your progress or treating yourself to something you enjoy.

Overcoming Setbacks

Remember that setbacks are a normal part of the process. Psychologists suggest practicing self-compassion during these times can help maintain motivation. Research shows that people who are kind to themselves in the face of failure are likelier to engage in problem-solving rather than avoidance.

In summary, moving from discussion to action requires deliberate goal setting, cognitive reframing, self-regulation, and effective use of social support. By implementing these strategies, you can channel the motivation and dopamine boost from discussing your goals into tangible progress toward achieving them.

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** Book Recommendation:

  • Dopamine Nation - Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence

  • Limitless - Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life

  • Change Your Brain, Change Your Life - The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems

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