It’s hard to hit a target blindfolded, much less hit it well. Which is why a study published this month in the Neuron journal offers some pretty encouraging news in the brain-training space. Researchers have identified the region of the brain associated with motivation, and the report suggests we can hack that area to better ignite our willpower.
During the study, researchers had participants undergo an fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, a noninvasive technique to detect activity in different parts of the brain. Then they asked people to motivate themselves and excite the related ventral tegmental area, or VTA, of their brains. Nothing happened.
But when the participants were allowed to track their brain activity via a neurofeedback meter that heated up while they motivated themselves, they had a reference point toward which to aim their thoughts.
Some people sang songs, NPR reported. Others imagined a fired-up coach yelling at them. They did whatever it took, and it wasn’t easy. Researchers asked the participants to drum up these motivational states for 20 seconds multiple times, which just sounds mentally exhausting.
When Dr. Alison Adcock, the senior author on the paper, took the neurofeedback meter away, the participants continued to successfully motivate themselves using the same tactics that made their VTA light up. Informed by the activity displayed on the meter, the people essentially talked to their brains, then monitored and adjusted their input until they achieved the desired result.
Amazing, right? We’re talking about strategically changing a mood here, folks, and ultimately influencing the parts of the brain involved in learning and memory. I don’t foresee fMRIs being mass produced for the sole purpose of people hacking their own brains for self-improvement in the near future, but this way of generating motivation is inspiring.
While not as precise as an expensive fMRI scanner, this study shows that the things we tell ourselves to be motivated and keep going do have value. So, until we can all confidently and pointedly instruct our brains to pump up the volume, let us continue using the self-motivating tools we’ve got.