The Motivation Switch in Your Brain

By | September 16, 2017

The part of your brain that is crucial for self-motivation also serves as a center for understanding the preferences and motivations of other people.

Getting yourself motivated towards achieving a goal, and understanding what other people might want in order to help you achieve your goals often go hand-in-hand.

Recent research by a neuroscience team at Zhejiang University in China points to a specific group of neurons known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, or dmPFC, as instrumental to this process:

The dmPFC is integral to the Theory of Mind, defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

Knowing What Others Want

Humans are highly social animals; the ability to estimate others’ preferences in an accurate and reliable manner is typically essential for successful social adaptation and survival.

Since the mental states of others are often much less predictable than those of one’s self, reading the mind of others is an inherently uncertain process. The dmPFC plays a central role in constantly updating a mental “snaphot” of other people, on the basis of incoming information obtained through observation – in other words, using interactions and behavior cues to read someone’s mind with greater accuracy.

In many cases, perceiving the intentions of others can be directly tied to the ability to focus on and clarify your own intentions – the dual role of the dmPFC.

Conditioning Your Brain to Win

In the Zhejiang University study, researchers used optogenetics to directly stimulate the dmPFC in male rats. Optogenetics is the combination of genetics and direct light to control the activity of brain cells.

In the experiment, lower ranking male rats were given a “boost” to their dmPFC through an optogenetic light pulse, making them dominant over the alpha male. Take a look at this video:

This dmPFC power boost lasted long after the experiment, leading to more dominant behavior by previously lower ranking rats. In other words, the winning streak continued.

So how can we replicate this effect in daily life? A large goal is made up of many smaller goals. Focus on the seemingly small goals first, and establish a positive track record.

Free example: Try this working memory test, which asks you to repeat a series of numbers. The Span is set to 8, which can be difficult to achieve at first. Lower the Span to 5 or 6, then work your way up to 10 digits.