01/27/2016 01:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stoking the Motivational Fire: Neuroscience Guides the Way


by Teodora Stoica

As dawn breaks, Rob Young quietly ties the laces of his favorite running shoes, dons his distinctive kilt and hits the road to complete a marathon. Specifically, his 370th marathon in 365 days. Besides the mind-boggling 10,178 miles raced, thousands of dollars earned for charities, and shattering the world record for most finished marathons, Rob Young is exceptional in one simple regard: He doesn't give up. What drives him daily to push his body towards another 26.2-mile finish?

As an avid marathon runner myself and neuroscientist, I am compelled to understand how motivational fire is ignited and critically, which elements sustain it. Especially at the start of the new year, my thoughts turn to various resolutions. Whether your goal is to work out more or spend more time with family, chances are distractions and obligations will silently snuff the January motivation. Yet as it turns out, you only need to stoke two factors: attention and effort.

Making it out the door

Committing to weight loss is fantastic, but the energy involved leaving a comfortable bed early in the morning to fit in a workout might prevent the realization of the goal. The brain has mechanisms in place that calculate the effort required and weigh it against the magnitude of reward. The decision to act is then transformed to a motor plan and behavior is carried out. Yet even with a long list of pros exceeding the cons, not even one foot makes out the door. What happens?

Researchers at the University of Oxford in London were interested in whether this type of behavior - called behavioral apathy - had a biological basis in the brain.

They had participants play a computer game while having their brain scanned. The task was simple. Each volunteer saw an apple tree with a number of fruit (the stake) and effort level required to win a fraction of the apples (trunk height). In order to gather the apples, the volunteer had to squeeze a digital hand grip, which translated on the screen as a red bar gradually filling the trunk. As in real-world situations, the monetary reward based on the number of apples gathered corresponded to the stake and the effort produced. For example, if the tree trunk was high and apples were less accessible, a higher effort was necessary.

The results were fascinating. Deciding whether or not to gather apples activated the frontal region of the brain involved in directing attention. Attention is vital to the motivation process - constantly keep the goal at the front of the mind (excuse the pun) in order to achieve it. Distractions become excuses and the goal is easily forgotten.

In the experiment, those who chose to gather the apples on the highest tree and expend maximal effort activated the premotor cortex, reflecting response anticipation or preparation. Realizing that New Year's resolution requires its visualization as much as its execution.

Finally, an increase in effort requirement produced a decrease in activation of regions producing dopamine - the so-called "feel-good chemical" responsible for reward. In short, a reward signal is registered only after effort is already under way - the second vital component to the motivational fire.

Following through

In his book The Motivation Manifesto, Brendan Buchard states: "Motivation comes from effort. People say, 'I wish I had more motivation today, because then I would try something.' But our thinking is backward. The way our brain works is that dopamine is released the second we actually do something. So the motivation doesn't come before, it comes after."

At the end of the experiment, the participants filled out a questionnaire to determine their level of behavioral apathy. Individuals who were more apathetic recruited more brainpower in anticipation of an action execution. You may call these people lazy, but in fact - they have a biological basis for their lack of interest. Less activation in reward areas leads to effort discounting - the "It's way too hard, I won't even try" feeling. These individuals are also more sensitive to physical effort.

Similarly, the probability of engaging in an effortful activity is not related to the value of the proposition, but the planning and anticipation of the response: The higher the probability of accepting an offer of gathering apples, the more likely a motor response is to follow.

The intriguing results suggest that maintaining motivation comes not so much from the commitment to the task, but from the action following the commitment. Those who were more apathetic showed dysfunctional communication between regions involved in action energization and preparation - leading to increased effort sensitivity - and lack of action initiation.

Let's be frank, most of us aren't like Rob Young. Yet neuroscience teaches us that we do not need to run 26.2 miles each day to stay motivated. What is required is attention to the task, and bit of effort to begin. So this year - the only resolution you need is "Start".


Teodora Stoica is a translational neuroscience Ph.D. student at the University of Louisville where she investigates human emotion. You can find her writing on her personal science blog.