Can we choose what we’re motivated to do? Can we decide to be motivated to study?

A while ago I had a really bad nightmare. I dreamt that I was locked inside my car while 3 crazed madmen were yelling and attempting to gain access from the outside. The car was being shaken and rocked from the outside and I couldn’t find the keys to start the engine. One attacker had smashed through the rear window, while another was loudly hammering great holes through the front door with an iron bar. They were getting closer and closer to me and I had nowhere to go. I saw the car keys lying on the back seat just as the 3rd man punched through the front windscreen with his fist, shattering glass all over me and the front seats. I tried to fight back as they grabbed me by the throat but it was getting more and more difficult because the more I tried the tighter they held.

I woke with a jump and sat up, almost falling out of the bed. I was soaked in sweat and my heart was pounding as I felt myself struggle to catch my breath. As I reached for the light switch I noticed that I couldn’t get my legs out from under the duvet. I must have been twisting and turning during my disturbed sleep and had become tangled up. After eventually freeing myself and calming down I went to get myself a glass of water, and as I sat on my own in the dark kitchen I thought about what had just happened.

Everything I’ve read about dreams or nightmares like this seems to imply some inner thoughts trying to make themselves known. They might suggest I was feeling trapped, maybe by life or by my job? Or they may hint at some anxiety that is present in my subconscious. Even looking this up now I am told by some websites that my nightmare was likely a result of me dealing with the various stresses of reality, while others suggest I should look to work out its meaning myself. There seems to be very little, if any, agreement.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on

For at least 5000 years there has been evidence of humans trying to interpret our dreams. The traditional view of a bad dream or nightmare is to assume the dreamer has experienced a realistic-appearing stressful situation which has caused an increased pulse and breathing rate, maybe accompanied by sweating or shaking. After enduring this for a period of time the dreamer is assumed to wake and then realise it was, indeed, just a dream and he or she manages to calm themselves down. They may then reconsider the content of the nightmare later in the day and try to work out what it all means. This is where they are likely to get conflicting advice, depending on which books or websites they consult. Even the National Sleep Foundation website is a bit vague when it comes to dreams & nightmares.

What if we’re all going about this in the wrong way, though?

What if we should be looking at nightmares from a completely different perspective?

An alternative view, which I have been considering for a number of years now, could be that a nightmare is simply the brain’s way of telling us that something has gone wrong while we are sleeping: Maybe our duvet is too thick which causes us to overheat and sweat. Or possibly the bedsheets have fallen off leading to coldness and shivering. Perhaps we have ended up face down in the pillow for a few seconds causing our pulse & breathing rates to increase. What I’m saying is: what if a nightmare is just natures way of creating an image so powerful that it motivates us to wake up when we need to be woken – to allow us to fix whatever’s gone wrong?

In this alternative view we don’t need to try to interpret a nightmare. We can just see it as a series of visual images which wake us up from our sleep for our own protection. It allows us to solve a problem that has occurred before it causes us harm. We might have become too hot and need to cool down, or perhaps we just need the loo.

I first thought of this view a good 10-15 years ago and since then, each time I have been woken by nightmare I have noticed that there has, indeed, been something wrong.

The most common problems that have led to me being woken by a nightmare recently have been:

  • I’ve become trapped in the duvet causing me to overheat.
  • The duvet has fallen off the bed causing me to get cold.
  • A breeze from an open window is making me cold.
  • The need to visit the bathroom.
  • I’ve trapped my arm under my own body, cutting off the blood circulation and causing my hand to go numb.
  • Hearing a noise (a squeaking door hinge moving in the breeze actually became incorporated into my nightmare as a person’s scream).
  • I always have a lot of nightmares whenever I’m unwell.

Now, I appreciate that this is just my own anecdotal evidence, and that a sample size of one is hardly going to get me a Nobel prize any time soon. However, I’m sure other examples exist. Perhaps you have some tales of your own that you’d like to add to the comments section below?

Whatever viewpoint we have of nightmares, it is fairly clear that the brain is capable of producing some pretty convincing visual images. Images so powerful that they motivate us to act upon them in some way or another. And so this brings me to the point of all this rambling. If our brains are capable of responding to visual images as though they are real, perhaps we can use these mental images to add an extra layer of motivation to do something that would benefit us in the future.

Let me give you an example. Revising for exams is quite boring. However, passing exams is quite beneficial. The problem lies in the fact that we rarely see one without the other. You need to revise in order to perform well. So can you create a set of mental images that are effective enough to motivate you to revise?

Brain areas involved in certain tasks

I believe you can. In fact I believe you can motivate yourself to try almost anything if you create a strong enough mental image. There has been some recent psychological research to study the link between mental imagery and motivation. Renner et al (2019) have shown, for example, that creating vivid mental images of planned activities can significantly increase a person’s motivation for carrying them out. They go on to suggest that the brain structures involved when creating such mental images are the same ones as those involved when actually doing the activity itself. It’s as though the brain cannot tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. The research team also suggests that the motivation to complete a task correlates with the vividness of the image. So making an image of an activity large, bold, colourful and loud should further increase our motivation to complete it.

Try it for yourself now. Sit down now and close your eyes (after you’ve read this paragraph, obviously). Imagine eating your favourite quick snack (fruit, chocolate, biscuits, whatever you like to snack on). Imagine how the food feels, smells and sounds as you open it. Experience the anticipation as you think about putting it into your mouth. Think about how you are going to feel. Now imagine taking that first bite. Feel the textures on your tongue and hear the sounds as your teeth bite through. Notice the sugar rush as you chew and then smell the wonderful flavours as you swallow and the aromas circulate around the back of your throat and up to your nose. Now repeat this imagery but turn the brightness up in your mind. Make the pictures big, the sounds loud and the smells intense. I’m betting you now want to eat one for real.

If our motivation is boosted by just sitting and thinking about what we want, and we can choose what we imagine, then it stands to reason that we can control our motivation for anything we choose.

In that case, why not create the motivation to study for exams?

The key is think only about the positive aspects. Imagine what the exam results can do for you. Think about the college course you want to apply for or that university you’d like to attend. Imagine carrying out the job you want at the end of it all and the pay you’ll receive for doing it well. Perhaps you like to see yourself getting better grades than an older brother or sister? Whatever it is that drives you, imagine it now. Make the images big, loud, bold and bright. Experience the joy you’ll feel when you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve and think about how revising will help you to get there. Do this everyday.

A fake certificate to download and print with your name on it

One of my previous posts suggests making fake exam certificates to make your imagery even more real. You could create some actual photographs of you doing the thing you want to get from your revision. Visit the university buildings and take a selfie of you standing outside. You don’t even have to actually go there – take some images from their website and mock one up using some image editing software.

Me getting my degree – honest

If this all seems a bit daunting and such a monumental task right now, break it all down into smaller chunks. Create a series of mini goals for each week or each day. Then create the mental images for each mini goal.

Experiment. Try things out. Whatever works for you – Go for it.

Take care,



Renner, F. et al (2019) Mental Imagery as a “Motivational Amplifier” to Promote Activities, Behaviour Research & Therapy vol 114, Elsevier, Amsterdam. (

Feel free to add to the comments below with other imagery suggestions or to tell me about how your own nightmares allowed you to wake up and fix what had gone wrong – increase my sample size.

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