Muhammad Ali and Where Determination Lives in the Brain

How hard we push ourselves is linked to our assessment of risk and reward.

Posted Jun 04, 2016

Widely known by the moniker "The Greatest of All Time", Muhammad Ali has died at age 74. He was born as Cassius Clay Jr. in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky and went on to win the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight gold medal in Rome. Ali began his 21-year career as a professional boxer in 1960 and stepped out of the ring for the last time in 1981; Muhammad Ali had 56 wins and 5 losses in 61 fights.

Including all titles from all sanctioning bodies, Ali held 8 championship belts. The longest stretch of maintaining his crown was between February 25, 1964 and February 6, 1967. During this almost 3 year stretch he was at the very top of his game and defended his title 9 times.

In an earlier post I quoted Ali talking about belief, determination, confidence and performance. When Muhammad Ali said that being a champion is much more than physical training that in addition champions "...have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

This concept of determination and will to succeed was clearly at the core of Ali throughout his life. Behaviorally we can think of determination as including a weighing of risk and reward. In the context of Muhammad Ali, a boxing champion risks a great deal to achieve the reward of success inside and outside of the ring.

In the context of neuroscience, recent work shows that we can consider the weighing of risk and reward in our brains as including an assessment of the effort required to achieve the reward. We also now know where some of this assessment and possible seat of determination may live--in the very basement of your brain. This has been revealed by work done in Parkinson's Disease--and thus links even more to Muhammad Ali's lived experience with that disorder.

A recent study "The human subthalamic nucleus encodes the subjective value of reward and the cost of effort during decision-making" was published in the journal Brain by Alexandre Zenon and colleagues from Belgium, France, and the UK. In this paper Zenon and collaborators studied the electrical signaling in a cluster of neurons called the subthalamic nucleus found in the basal ganglia deep under the cerebral cortex.

Because of its interactions within the basal ganglia and role in movement control, the subthalamic nucleus is a target for deep brain stimulation in efforts to improve the motor symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. Zenon and colleagues made made recordings of activity from the subthalamic nucleus while participants with Parkinson's were asked to make choices on when and how strongly to physically squeeze an instrumented ball depending upon the perceived reward. The recordings from the subthalamic nucleus showed clear relationships between the level of effort and the reward to be achieved.

This study reveals two major things. Relays through the subthalamic nucleus in the basal ganglia are strongly related to assessments of risk and reward. That is, part of our sense of determination may live here. Also, in the words of the researchers, this work shows that part of the Parkinson’s disease symptoms "...may be caused by a disruption of the processes involved in balancing the value of actions with their associated effort cost."

Our adaptive human behavior is predicated on our ability to choose our actions based on how much effort and energy will be needed to achieve them. This fantastic example of evolutionary conservation of energy expenditure based on risk-reward and cost-benefit calculations is constantly occurring within the basal ganglia in all of us.

It is also tempting to speculate that, in the absence of neuropathology like Parkinson's, our efforts--like those of the champions alluded to by the quote from Muhammad Ali above--can lead to beneficial changes within these circuits. Changes that can allow us to push ourselves to greater achievements.

Perhaps, in my attempt to paraphrase the late, great Ali, as our will becomes stronger than our skill our determination to achieve may grow greater still.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2016)