The Science of Setting Goals

The Science of Setting Goals

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think. Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

One of the greatest of desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.


The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs!

But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s sense of who we are can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

Imagination is the Mother of Knowledge


It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Every invention also leads to creation of a new knowledge. Thus knowledge is created to fulfill the necessity of the human beings. How the necessity or the desire of man does get converted to knowledge?

The answer lies in the ability of human beings to imagine what is beyond the sensual perception

It is through the human imagination that all knowledge has been created. Knowledge can be represented in any form like words, pictures, diagram or audio-visual medium. The knowing of knowledge again triggers imagination as the needs keeps on evolving which again produces fresh knowledge.

What is Knowledge without Imagination?

Knowledge is meaningless without imagination. Imagine reading scripture before a dog. It can have surely no effect on the dog. Imagine giving a book written in English to a person who does not know English. It is useless to him as he can not understand anything from it. Even pictures which are free from the barrier of language have the effect only if they can trigger an imagination in the person. There would be no effect of the picture of the most beautiful women of the world on an animal in the same way the most important diagrams of physics are useless for a man of art.

How are we so sure in answering the above asked questions even without actually reading the scripture before a dog and measuring his reaction?

The answer is again “imagination”.

We seem to know the answers of the most of questions not by reading from any books or by experience but purely by imagination.

What we consider knowledge is nothing but imagination that is triggered in the mind of the knower of the knowledge. The knowledge that does not trigger imagination has no meaning. Even the words like love, God, intelligence are nothing but knowledge that triggers imagination of something in us. These imaginations may be different in each person yet they all have some common traits of imagination.

Every piece of knowledge is nothing but a word which carries a lot of imagination. For example, when we say “The Theory of Relativity”, it does triggers in us the entire theory of relativity (if we have been understood it) which can be explained in many pages. If someone does know the theory of relativity, these words carry no imagination and no significance. If you say the word, like Bill Clinton” it means a person with so many attributes. You can spend your entire life explaining what it means to be God, Love or Bill Clinton, including such aspects that you create from your own imagination which are still unknown to the world.

Thus imagination is the source of all knowledge as Einstein has said,

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand”

Scientific Knowledge and Imagination

Often scientific knowledge is considered to be factual and free from imagination. Yet it does not seem to be true. Consider the theory of atom. The Bohr’s model of atom states that each atom consists of a positively charged nucleus having protons and neutrons which are encircled by negatively charged electrons. So when we think about atom, the image of atom is imagined by our mind like all the planets revolving around sun. Yet there are certain information about atom which are not yet known. For example, how the positive proton does came together to form nucleus overcoming the force of repulsion faced by same charges. From where the neutron came into existence and got embedded to the nucleus. From where the electrons came and started revolving around nucleus. These are unexplainable facts of the atomic theory as it is beyond human perception for the time being.

Let us consider one of the first theories of physics viz. Gravity discovered by Newton. We know that all material bodies experience a force of attraction towards each other. We have accurately measured the quantum of this force and its relationship with the mass and distance. Yet we do not know how this force works? Scientists earlier believed that there something called gravitational wave which is present between masses though no such wave was ever found. Einstein using his General theory of relativity explained that the result of acceleration of mass is same as the gravitational force. It means that if you are sitting in a closed space like lift, it is impossible for you to state whether the force experienced by you is due to the gravitational pull of a mass or due to acceleration of the lift. When Einstein gave this theory of space-time continuum, it was not accepted easily as other people could not imagine what Einstein imagined in making the theory of relativity. Hence his theory went unnoticed for more than 15 years. Many such theories die their natural death as people fail to imagine the contents of these theories.

Similar is the case of other commonly observed forces that exist between electric charges and magnetic substances. All the waves of electrical and magnetic charges are imaginary but useful to understand the effect of charge or magnetism.

On further imagination, you can easily conclude that even if it is presumed that the waves of gravity, electric charges and magnetism exist, it still can not explain how waves casue attraction or repulsion. This aspect is still beyond the imagination of human being, hence left beyond the purview of scientific knowledge.

Now consider Big Bang theory. It does explain many things that are known about the universe except that it is impossible to know what existed before Big Bang. There must be some thing existed before Big Bang, yet no theory is created because it is beyond the imagination of human mind.

John Dewey summarized the role of imagination in the scientific inventions in the book, “The Quest for Certainty” in following words.

Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.

Thus knowledge stops where the human imagination stops. Yet in every era, people are born who dare to think beyond the obvious and discover new knowledge from the treasure of Nature and God.

Imagination Pervades Humanity

Imagination is the ability of man to form mental images, or the ability to spontaneously generate images within one’s own mind. Yet imagination is not voluntary as it happens automatically if one desires for it. Further, imagination is not individualistic but consists of many common features. There seems to be a common thread of imagination that is present in all human beings since his birth. The inborn imagination does not seem to have changed much over thousands of years.

An artist knows the truth of this all pervasive imagination that forms core of human personality. Therefore, when he makes an art using his imagination, he really captures the imagination of all humanity in it. A good poet or writer writes a poem or fiction using his imagination yet his creation triggers the same types of imagination in vast number of people. Thus people understand the knowledge and emotion of the author through the words of the literature or the picture of the arts.

Imagination is also in the core of the ability of the man to become a leader. A leader through his imagination captures the imagination of the masses and transfers his imagination in their mind. Thus a good leader is one who makes his imagination as the imagination of the people. The success stories of the leaders create knowledge of management and polity. Knowledge is merely the visible tool that is used by the imaginative people to transfer their understanding to the other people.

No human relationship is possible without imagination. We all seem to know the thoughts of the other people from our imagination. The difference between a successful and a failed relationship is the capability of the partners to have the accurate knowledge of the mind of the other person from his or her imagination. A man without right imagination is doomed to fail in both his personal and professional life even if he knows all the theories of the world because even the application of theories needs imagination.

Imagination seems to have many layers. The core of imagination seems to be eternal like the soul of the person while the surface of the imagination may alter with time and place. It is for his reason that the knowledge contained in the scriptures and classics still fills the imagination of the people and continue to be a useful knowledge for people.

Imagination: The Means and End of Knowledge

Imagination is behind all the creations of the world. Blaise Pascal has wisely said, “Imagination disposes of everything; it creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are everything in this world.”

Knowledge which is the ability of the person to know a thing springs from the imagination of the person. Therefore, it is right to say that imagination is the mother of knowledge. Imagination is like God that is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and source of everything that we can ever realize. Imagination, is thus the manifestation of God in human brain as a famous poet Emily Dickinson said in his poem

The Brain is wider than the Sky
For put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease and You beside.The Brain is deeper than the sea
For hold them Blue to Blue,
The one the other will absorb
As Sponges Buckets do.

The Brain is just the weight of God
For Heft them Pound for Pound,
And they will differ if they do
As Syllable from Sound.

Top 45 Imagination Quotations

How often do you use your imagination? Think about these quotes from famous people to help you harness the incredible power of your imagination.

1. “The power of imagination makes us infinite.” – John Muir

2. “Tomorrow’s future is shaped by today’s imagination” – Vernon Myers

3. “Imagineering = you let your imagination soar and then you engineer it down to earth.” – Michael Leboeuf

4. “Imagination is more important than knowledge, for while knowledge points to all there is, imagination points to all there will be.” – Albert Einstein

5. “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire; you will what you imagine; and at last you create what you will.” – George Bernard Shaw

6. “Imagination is our most powerful mental facility and the creation of new ideas is at the very heart of all progress.” – Michael Leboeuf

7. “I have always felt that the highest human expression comes in our creative endeavors, those which draw upon all of our powers of imagination, intelligence, and understanding.” – Armand Hammer

8. “Imagination is everything – it is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” – Albert Einstein

9. “In the twenty-first century, brainpower and imagination, invention, and the organization of new technologies are the key strategic ingredients.” – Lester Thurow

10. “Five minutes, just before going to sleep, given to a bit of directed imagination regarding achievement possibilities of the morrow, will steadily and increasingly bear fruit, particularly if all ideas of difficulty, worry or fear are resolutely ruled out and replaced by those of accomplishment and smiling courage.” – Fredrick Pierce

11. “Whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense, is useful.” – Shelley

12. “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

13. “To believe a business is possible is the way to make it so. How many feasible projects have miscarried through despondency, and been strangled in their birth by a cowardly imagination.” – Jeremy Collier

14. “Dreaming is an act of pure imagination, attesting in all men a creative power, which, if it were available in waking, would make every man a Dante or a Shakespeare.” – H.F. Hedge

15. “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” – Carl Sagan

16. “You see things; and you say, “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”” – George Bernard Shaw

17. “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” – Gloria Steinem

18. “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” – Henry David Thoreau

19. “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.” – Robert Fulghum

20. “The soul never thinks without a mental picture.” – Aristotle

21. “There is nothing that cannot be achieved by firm imagination.” – Japanese Proverb

22. “To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination.” – Cynthia Ozick

23. “Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future.” – Charles F. Kettering

24. “One of the virtues of being very young is that you don’t let the facts get in the way of your imagination.” – Sam Levenson

25. “The great successful men of the world have used their imagination… they think ahead and create their mental picture in all it details, filling in here, adding a little there, altering this a bit and that a bit, but steadily building – steadily building.” – Robert Collier

26. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

27. “Every really new idea looks crazy at first.” – Abraham Maslow

28. “First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality. The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination.” – Napoleon Hill

29. “Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

30. “We are what we imagine ourselves to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

31. “What would it be like if you lived each day, each breath, as a work of art in progress? Imagine that you are a masterpiece unfolding, every second of every day, a work of art taking form with every breath.” – Thomas Crum

32. “You have all the reason in the world to achieve your grandest dreams. Imagination plus innovation equals realization.” – Denis Waitley

33. “Your imagination, my dear fellow, is worth more than you imagine.” – Louis Aragon

34. “Limitations live only in our minds. But if we use our imaginations, our possibilities become limitless.” – Jamie Paolinetti

35. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

36. “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein

37. “Anyone can imagine and anyone can dream. But it’s the “do” part that scares away most dreamers.” – The Disney Imagineers

38. “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” – Duane Michals

39. “I am imagination. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart cannot feel.” Peter Nivio Zarlenga

40. “Imagination rules the world.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

41. “There is a space between man’s imagination and man’s attainment that may only be traversed by his longing” – Kahlil Gibran

42. “Live out of your imagination, not your history.” – Stephen Covey

43. “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” – Albert Einstein

44. “Sometimes we think we should be able to know everything. But we can’t. We have to allow ourselves to see what there is to see, and we have imagine. ” – David Almond

45. “Imagination is our ability to see inwardly and picture there that which has not yet appeared outwardly. Imagination is God’s gift to us.” – Donald Curtis