From coaches to self-help books, everyone has advice for how to get motivated to accomplish a task. But what if you could simply see how your brain reacts to different motivation strategies and then pick the best one? New research is finding that showing people their brain activity levels could be the key to firing them up.
The new work is part of a growing body of research that has found that people are best motivated to learn new information and adapt to new situations from curiosity and excitement. In study after study, Alison Adcock of Duke University and colleagues have found that the promise of reward – whether a good grade or a promotion – promotes more flexible learning than the threat of punishment – say a poor grade or demotion. That’s because the anticipation of reward versus punishment recruits different brain circuits.
But more surprisingly, as recently presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) in San Francisco, Adcock and colleagues have found big variations between individuals in their responses to the promise of reward or threat; for example, some learners even show “threat” responses to promised rewards, which negates the benefits of reward-based motivation. That got Adcock to thinking about whether there is a way to motivate people to learn that does not involve external factors. So her research team set out to teach people how to internally create the neural states most likely to motivate themselves.
The ventral tegmental area, or VTA, is a region in the midbrain where scientists have found high concentrations of dopamine neurons, which coordinate brain activity related to reward and motivation. And previous research has suggested that VTA connectivity with the hippocampus promotes learning.
So with the goal of helping people boost activity within the VTA, Adcock and colleagues Jeffrey MacInnes and Kathryn Dickerson designed a study in which participants in the fMRI scanner could watch their VTA activation levels firsthand. As she explained at the APS meeting, half of the participants had a graphic of a thermometer that showed their actual VTA activity levels going up and down, while the other half had a thermometer that acted like a metronome, rhythmically going up and down unrelated to brain activity.
The researchers explained to the participants that the midbrain region prepares them for action and that they would be trying to engage that region. To help them activate the region, the researchers asked the subjects to think of motivating thoughts and imagery. They provided general examples, like “Imagine crossing the finish line of a marathon” or motivational phrases, like “You can do it.” But the researchers were very specific in telling the participants that they should generate the strategies themselves, by thinking about what personally motivates them.
After this “training” period, the participants then selected the motivational tactic that yielded the best results for them on their thermometers, so that they could try to create the same state for themselves without seeing the brain feedback. Sure enough, those in the feedback group were able to recreate that neural state on their own: They were able to activate the VTA for a sustained 20 seconds without seeing their thermometers and did so better than the control group.
Interestingly, Adcock said, those in the control group with the metronome-like thermometer reported feeling equally motivated – and even more successful – than those in the feedback group. But this subjective assessment was false; they only thought they were successful.
Even though we may have intuitive ideas about how to best motivate ourselves, the study shows that our intuitions are often ill-informed. We need to scientifically understand brain patterns and test what actually works to be able to get ourselves into an optimal motivational state for a particular task.
The researchers also found that those watching their brain feedback were able to increase connectivity between the VTA and hippocampus, suggesting the potential for enhancing future learning. In general, the study suggests that we can motivate ourselves in a sustained way internally, independent of our environments.
Such behavioral neurostimulation techniques hold great promise for new therapies and learning strategies to help people earlier in their lives and with less drug intervention for clinical populations (think: ADHD, depression, Schizophrenia – conditions associated with difficulty in motivation that may impede people from learning to adapt behavior to solve problems).
Adcock has a BRAINS grant through the National Institute for Mental Health to apply her research to develop such therapies. The idea would be to induce the anticipation of reward – perhaps through a technique similar to the thermometer feedback – followed by a few minutes of learning. The key to these therapies is finding motivational techniques unique to the individual.
We need to move away from punishment-motivated learning, Adcock said, if we want to give people tools for flexibility. While a threat-based incentives are important for survival (learning to avoid predators, etc.), in the modern world, we often need to quiet these responses, and move toward learning strategies that motivate us to engage and learn with the brain systems that promote adaptable, flexible behavior.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Adcock presented this research in the talk “Behavioral Neurostimulation: Creating Neural Contexts for Adaptive Memory” on May 24, 2014, at the APS annual meeting in San Francisco, CA.