Dirima/Shutterstock
Source: Dirima/Shutterstock

Would you identify yourself as someone who is highly motivated or do you tend to be more apathetic? Having an intrinsic lack of motivation is clinically called “behavioral apathy.” Many people would label someone who lacks self-motivation as being “lazy.” I don't like the idea of labeling people's character traits. Neuroplasticity guarantees that your brain structure and connectivity are never set in stone. You can always reinvent yourself. 

Over a century ago, long before the advent of brain imaging technology, William James said prophetically, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” Therefore, if you put the ‘cart before the horse’ in terms of kickstarting motivated behaviors using your free will, I believe that the neural pathways associated with a motivated person's brain connectivity will eventually become strengthened. 

Hopefully, the latest neuroscientific findings discussed in this post will offer a kernel of inspiration for even the most apathetic reader to become more motivated to optimize his or her full human potential.

Motivation and Apathy Are Linked to Specific Brain Connections

Neuroscientists at Oxford University recently discovered a neurobiological mechanism that might explain why some people are inherently more proactive and ambitious than others. Although these findings are not an excuse to stay unmotivated, this groundbreaking research does offer inspiring new clues on ways that each of us can become more motivated, and take the bull by the horns in our daily lives. 

The research also offers clinical explanations as to why people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or after a stroke often become "pathologically apathetic." In certain cases, although someone may be physically capable of performing daily tasks, he or she becomes so demotivated that the individual is unable to make any effort to care for themselves. 

These new discoveries shed light on how differences in brain connectivity impact motivation and apathy. These findings also offer an explanation for motivation and apathy that is rooted in the strength of our individual brain connections.

Geoff B. Hall/Wikimedia Commons
Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in yellow. 
Source: Geoff B. Hall/Wikimedia Commons

The November 2015 study, “Individual Differences in Premotor Brain Systems Underlie Behavioral Apathy,” was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. The neuroscientists used an effort and reward-based decision-making paradigm along with functional and diffusion-weighted brain imaging technology to conduct this research. 

The research team concluded that apathy is linked to decreased structural and functional connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and stronger recruitment of premotor neural systems involved in the anticipation of an action seated in the supplementary motor area (SMA).

Previous research has identified that the ACC is involved in decision-making, reward anticipation, empathy, and gratititude. Last week, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation and Pain Relief," based on research which found that the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex was also linked to reducing pain through mindfulness and meditation

For this new Oxford study, volunteers filled out a questionnaire to identify which individuals self-reported being motivated or apathetic. Then, each person played a game that studied the amount of brain power in specific regions it took to win a reward while inside a brain imaging machine. The researchers analyzed the brain activity throughout the game. Although apathetic people were less likely to accept offers during the game that required effort, their brains showed more activity in areas associated with anticipating any potential movement.

The researchers believe they have unearthed a brain mechanism linked to apathy that is driven by inefficient communication between the ACC and SMA. The weakness of these brain connections appears to trigger a greater physiological cost by increasing the brain power it takes to initiate an action in those with weaker brain connectivity between these regions. In sports, this would be called "psyching yourself out" or "paralysis by analysis."

Why Would Being Apathetic Require More Brain Power?

When the team of neuroscientists set out to study differences in brain connectivity between healthy young people who were motivated and those who were apathetic, they didn't expect to see the less motivated people using more brain energy when contemplating making an effort.

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Premotor cortex in red. 
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

In an unexpected twist, the researchers found that the people who tended to be more apathetic had less streamlined brain connectivity between regions linked to deciding that you are going to make a muscular movement, and actually making the movement. This lack of efficient connectivity resulted in more activity and a drain of energy in the premotor cortex.

The premotor cortex is a central brain region involved in the decision to take action. This area lights up milliseconds before other brain areas that control your physical movements are engaged. In those who are less motivated, the premotor cortex appears to use more energy.

In a press release, Masud Husain, Professor of Neurology and Cognitive Neuroscience, at University of Oxford described this study:

"We expected to see less activity because they were less likely to accept effortful choices but we found the opposite. We thought that this might be because their brain structure is less efficient, so it's more of an effort for apathetic people to turn decisions into actions.

Using our brain scanning techniques we found that connections in the front part of the brains of apathetic people are less effective. The brain uses around a fifth of the energy you're burning each day. If it takes more energy to plan an action, it becomes more costly for apathetic people to make actions. Their brains have to make more effort."

Neuroscience Can Motivate Us to Take Action and Improve Our Lives

The team of researchers that conducted this study on apathy and motivation didn't offer any prescriptive advice on ways to apply their findings to make someone who is apathetic more motivated. However, based on decades of research, I feel confident presenting a hypothesis that the functional connectivity between the ACC and SMA is probably malleable and can be strengthened through the repetition of proactive daily behaviors linked to a mindset of motivation.

In September 2015, another study conducted at Oxford University, reported that there is a strong correlation between a particular set of connections in the human brain and positive or negative lifestyle and behavior traits. I wrote about this research in a Psychology Today blog post, "How Are Human Traits Linked to Specific Brain Connections?

Anyone who is healthy can change the functional connectivity of his or her brain by consciously changing habits of behavior and patterns of thinking. Because the brain is plastic—your mindset, explanatory styles, and predisposition to be motivated or apathetic are never fixed. 

Throughout my lifespan, I’ve searched for a better understanding of the brain as a way to optimize psychological and physical well-being, motivation, and performance in myself and others. My father, Richard M. Bergland, was a neuroscientist, neurosurgeon, and author of The Fabric of Mind. He also did a research sabbatical at Oxford in the 1960s. I inherited my dad's passion for brain science and identifying practical ways to apply neuroscience to improve our lives. 

When my father passed away in 2007, I made a vow that I would do my best as a layperson to keep my finger on the pulse of the latest neuroscience and communicate these findings to a general audience in ways that are actionable. I know that if he were alive today, my dad would be thrilled to read about these new discoveries in this blog post.

Conclusion: Brain Imaging Helps Visualize Positive Changes in Mindset and Behavior

This study from the University of Oxford represents the first time researchers have identified a neurobiological bases for apathy in otherwise healthy individuals. Of course, their findings do not explain a lack of motivation or apathetic behavior in everyone. But these findings give us valuable insights into the brain processes underlying motivation, or a lack thereof.

The Latin proverb “Carpe Diem!” and advice to seize the day springs to mind as a simple way to improve the connectivity between your SMA and ACC. By not overthinking the premotor phase, I have a hunch that the white matter tracts that connect these regions can be strengthened and the brain drain of anticipation can be stopped. For the record, this is strictly conjecture and an educated guess on my part based on other research. The current Oxford study does not make these suggestions or conclusions. 

That said, the next time you feel apathetic or uninspired, don’t delay too long by idling or overthinking your action plan. Visualize the premotor brain region firing like a spark that lights the fuse on a rocket ship about to launch by using your “volition switch” to connect your ACC and SMA. Use a self-talk maxim such as "Just Do It" or "YES! I can do this" to trigger your premotor cortex and ignite a chain reaction.  

Kickstarting your premotor cortex to take action will create a domino effect as you follow through with subsequent muscle movements and seize the day. Over time, the daily practice and repetition of motivated behaviors can reshape the functional and structural connectivity of your brain and make you intrinsically more self-motivated. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete's Way blog posts.

The Athlete’s Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

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