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Goals, Motivation and the Brain

What can neuroscience tell us about how to succeed at our goals?

If you plan to make a New Year’s resolution in a couple of months, there’s a good chance your goal is to improve your health, foster more personal connections, or perform better at work or school. In each case, scientists have studied the psychological factors that contribute to success or failure: Do you have a detailed plan that includes a way to deal with potential pitfalls? Can you keep yourself motivated to maintain the changes you’ll be making? Have you enlisted the help of close friends or family to help keep you on track? In our quest to figure out the most meaningful features of goals, psychologists have recently turned to neuroscience for additional insights. What we have already found, and what I’m sure we’ll continue to find, is that the brain contains new and often surprising hints about how goal pursuit works and what makes it successful.

The mission of “The Motivated Brain” is to keep you informed about new and exciting results from neuroscience research that apply to motivation, and to explain how those findings are relevant to the goals you pursue in your daily life. I’ll write mostly about other people’s studies, but I’ll also describe some of our work when it’s relevant (I direct the Social and Affective Neuroscience lab at the University of Oregon). But my goal for today is to introduce you to the blog and give you a taste of the various flavors of neuroscience research I’ll be talking about in the coming months.

You’ve probably heard the cliché “where there’s a will there’s a way”, or—in psychological terms—if you are sufficiently motivated to obtain a goal, then you’ll be able to come up with a plan to achieve it. In my lab we say that goal pursuit needs a will and a way, but we haven’t yet seen convincing data that the former necessarily leads to the latter. Actually, there’s some evidence that the brain network for abstract intentional states (one kind of “will”) is inversely correlated to the brain network for concrete plans (one kind of “way”). From a neuroscience perspective, it might be the case that where there’s a will there’s actually less of a way (and vice versa). My next blog post will be about the implications of competing “will brain” and “way brain” systems for goal pursuit.

The Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 B.C.E.) might have been the first to hypothesize that the two fundamental human motives are to approach rewards and avoid pain. Several thousand years later, neuroscience has caught up by identifying some of the brain systems involved in approach and avoidance motivation. Namely, greater left than right prefrontal cortical activation is linked to approach motivation, and, less often, greater right than left activation in these regions is linked to avoidance motivation. A vexing question is why. What is the significance of approach being left-lateralized as opposed to right-lateralized? Neuroscientists have recently tried to answer that question by looking at handedness, and found that lefties show the opposite of the usual pattern, suggesting a fundamental connection between handedness and motivation. Over the next few months, I’ll explore the implications of these findings for how motivation might differ for right- and left-handed people.

The examples above illustrate how neuroscience can add depth to psychological studies and philosophical intuitions. And that alone would provide a compelling reason to look at the brain in addition to traditional measures for studying goal pursuit. But can neuroscience data ever tell us something entirely new about goals and motivation? My collaborator Emily Falk and I think so. In a recent paper we argued that neural indices can predict behavior above and beyond other types of measures under certain conditions. For instance, in one study we compared three groups of people on whether they could predict which anti-smoking ads would be successful in an upcoming statewide campaign: a panel of media experts, a traditional focus group of cigarette smokers, and a “neural focus group” of smokers whose brain activation was measured while they viewed the ads. The experts and the traditional focus groups agreed with each other but were both wrong; only the brain responses of the neural focus group participants correctly predicted which ads were the most successful. I’ll save a more detailed explanation of why this might be and how it works for a later post.

For now, I’ll just say that we motivation scientists are thrilled to have a brand new tool for answering the questions that we’re passionate about in neuroimaging. As explorers of this frontier, we’re optimistic about where we might go, but we also recognize that these are only the first few steps. I look forward to telling you about our journey!