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How to motivate your brain to motivate you

Motivation – the sense of drive that energizes our actions – can often seem elusive. Important goals can take a frustrating amount of time and effort to achieve. And the mere thought of such exertion can be enough to put one off task.

What does it take to push through these mental blocks and accomplish what we so desperately want? An entire industry of "you-can-do-it" books and pep-talk speakers offers a variety of solutions from action plans to attitude makeovers.

But advances in neuroscience suggest that it ultimately boils down to competing signals in the brain and understanding how to influence the outcome of this competition. Simply put, our drive to do something arises from the brain's calculations of what we can expect to get out of it (the pros) and at what cost (the cons).

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Human neuroimaging studies suggest that the nucleus accumbens, a basal ganglia structure deep within each of the brain's hemispheres, is critically involved in anticipating potential reward. This structure seems to work with other regions, such as the lower and innermost areas of the prefrontal cortex, to provide signals about how rewarding it would be to accomplish a potential action. The larger the potential benefit, the stronger the motivating signals.

Activity in other brain regions signal potential costs. The front-most section of the insular cortex, nestled between the frontal and temporal lobes, seems to be particularly sensitive to potential losses, along with the nearby amygdala. Activity in these regions has been linked with feelings of anxiety, which may explain the sense of unease we feel when faced with a risky prospect.

Brain scans suggest that de-motivating signals are also provided by other regions. Consider the putamen, for example, located above the nucleus accumbens and resembling a pair of small oblong earmuffs. Activity in a part of this structure has been shown to reflect the amount of effort required to do something. Other dampening signals arise from doubts about our chances of success or how long it could take.

Our sense of motivation can thus be seen in terms of a battle in the brain. The "do-it" signals constantly compete with the "don't-do-it" signals to determine our course of action (or inaction).

The challenge for many people is that the "don't-do-it" signals are more salient than they need to be. The sting of a prior failure, for instance, can increase our sensitivity to the possibility of failing again, giving extra strength to the "don't-do-it" forces.

Fortunately, recent research suggests that we have far greater control over the signals in our head that we might imagine. Indeed a number of simple mental strategies can help us to bias the competition in favour of the "do-it" signals to increase our sense of drive and motivation to accomplish our desired goals.

Attention is one of the most effective means of battling de-motivating brain signals. The brain's attention system, which includes some of the top and outermost regions of the frontal and parietal lobes, acts to enhance neural activity in areas that contribute to whatever we are focused on and reduce activity and potential distraction from other areas of the brain.

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Reminding yourself how nice it will be to accomplish a specific goal, for example, can be an important crutch. Attending to the potential reward increases activity in reward-related areas, and reduces activity in areas that might otherwise bog you down with fear of failure or concern over how difficult the task is.

Ultimately, the greatest motivational tool may be the realization that you can take control of the various signals in your head. And like most things, the more you do it, the better you get.

Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is an associate professor in neuroscience at the University of Guelph.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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