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 —> Read More