Hidden Brain is a new podcast from NPR about human behavior. In the latest episode, host Shankar Vedantam points out that sometimes having a back-up plan can actually be bad for you. And if you listen to the end of the episode, you can hear me singing a song about these concepts in the stye of a 90s-era pop-punk band.
We know we should put the cigarettes away or make use of that gym membership, but in the moment, we just don’t do it. There is a cluster of neurons in our brain critical for motivation, though. What if you could hack them to motivate yourself?
These neurons are located in the middle of the brain, in a region called the ventral tegmental area. A paper published Thursday in the journal Neuron suggests that we can activate the region with a little bit of training.
The researchers stuck 73 people into an fMRI, a scanner that can detect what part of the brain is most active, and focused on that area associated with motivation. When the researchers said “motivate yourself and make this part of your brain light up,” people couldn’t really do it.
“They weren’t that reliable when we said, ‘Go! Get psyched. Turn on your VTA,’ ” says Dr. Alison Adcock, a psychiatrist at Duke and senior author on the paper.
That changed when the participants were allowed to watch a neurofeedback meter that displayed activity in their ventral tegmental area. When activity ramps up, the participants see the meter heat up while they’re in the fMRI tube.
“Your whole mind is allowed to speak to a specific part of your brain in a way you never imagined before. Then you get feedback that helps you discover how to turn that part of the brain up or down,” says John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved with the work.
Using an fMRI for this kind of brain feedback is more effective than other, older tools like placing electrodes on the skull or EEG, Gabrieli says. “MRI lets you target a specific brain system or structure. EEG does not. When we’re measuring electrical activity, we don’t know really where it’s coming from.” He says he hasn’t seen compelling evidence that EEG feedback, which is commercially available, has helped people change their behavior.
Two of the researchers, Kathryn Dickerson and Jeff MacInnes, tried the system out on themselves. Not everything worked. Dickerson said she tried thinking about different memories that left the feedback meter cold. “Zip lining was super fun, but [thinking about that] was just terrible and not effective at all.”
So she switched strategies and tried giving herself a pep talk in the scanner. “I was like, 'Come on Katie. Move the thermometer. Just do it and move it.’ And I just pumped myself up. That was very effective,” she says. “It was exhilarating.”
It was also exhausting, MacInnes says. “The experience of the task was very difficult. You’re being asked to generate these intense motivational states for 20 seconds over multiple periods. It was very fatiguing for people.”
Study participants had a similar experience, Adcock says. Some people sang Queen songs to themselves or imagined having an angry coach yell at them. “My personal favorite was running down a line with everyone giving you high-fives,” Adcock says. When she took the feedback meter away, the participants were still able to light up their ventral tegmental area by thinking about the same things.
People really are changing their mood when they’re doing this, Adcock thinks. They’re really becoming more focused and eager. And it seems the effect begins reaching out to parts of the brain involved with learning and memory,
“We think that’s exciting because it shows after this training, something changed, Dickerson says. "The brain isn’t quite the same.” She thinks people might be achieving a state of mind that’s more conducive to learning and motivation.
If that’s true, it would be extraordinarily useful, Gabrieli says. Using MRIs to exert control over certain parts of our brain has been done before, he says. “[But this] is the first study to show it can be applied to the most important brain structure for human motivation. That could be very valuable for things people want to accomplish in life.”
Or it might be applied to habits that are really hard to start or break, Gabrieli says. “The hugely exciting piece of this is whether now people can use this upcoming research to gain control of behaviors that are challenging,” he says. “Healthy habits, eating habits, stopping to smoke and can a person with addiction use this successfully?”
And it might someday be a clinical tool. For instance, this particular cluster of neurons in the midbrain is part of the dopamine system. Adcock thinks activating the neurons in this way might also be releasing dopamine that could replace drug therapy for certain disorders.
“In ADHD, for example, we use stimulants that result in the same kind of release of brain chemicals,” Adcock says. “Does this technique generate that same kind of release of dopamine that a stimulant does? If we teach people to use it successfully, we could impact attention.”
But nobody knows if this actually changes brain chemistry. MacInnes says there are more experiments and tests they need to see if the brain activation they’re seeing actually does release dopamine or other neurochemicals.
Even if it does, Adcock says it’s definitely not affecting neurochemicals as much as a medication like Adderall, which is used to treat ADHD.
And Adcock hasn’t yet studied whether anyone actually changed their behavior after the sessions in the MRI.
Since the study, people have been trying the same strategies to motivate themselves in their daily lives, according to Adcock. If it’s working, brain training in an MRI might be a way for us to tap into our mind’s circuitry for willpower.
That, Gabrieli says, would be terrific.
Image credit: Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images
Debunking the myth of the “mean girl,” new research from the University of Georgia has found that boys use relational aggression – malicious rumors, social exclusion and rejection – to harm or manipulate others more often than girls.
The longitudinal study, published online in the journal Aggressive Behavior, followed a cohort of students from middle to high school and found that, at every grade level, boys engaged in relationally aggressive behavior more often than girls.
A team led by UGA professor Pamela Orpinas analyzed data collected from 620 students randomly selected from six northeast Georgia school districts. Students who participated in the study completed yearly surveys, which allowed the UGA researchers to identify and group them in distinct trajectories for relational aggression and victimization as they progressed from grade six to 12.
The human Energy Field (a.k.a Biofield, Aura or Subtle Body) is comprised of several layers of Energy. They are commonly known as the Physical Etheric, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual bodies, PEMS for short. Diagram above shows the Physical Body and each of the 7 Energy layers around it: 1. Etheric (slightly off the Physical Body) 2. Emotional 3. Mental 4. Astral (1st of 4 Spiritual layers) 5. Etheric Template (more subtle 1. Etheric) 6. Celestial (more subtle 2. Emotional) 7. Ketheric (more subtle 3. Mental)
These layers vary in depth, energy and frequency at any given moment in time. They fluctuate in response to our physical health, thoughts and feelings. Thus they are dynamic and ever-changing. The Energy Field (Aura) is usually regarded as a diagnostic tool, with various machines out there that “record” the colors of the Energy Field. Those trained in this modality use this color map as a way to determine what is “wrong” with someone. However, the Energy Field itself can be used as an Energy pathway, using various Vibration Energy Medicine therapies to access and treat the Subtle Bodies. Most people do not know how to work with the Energy Field, but it is a powerful access point for working with the whole human Energy System.
The next time someone accuses you of making an irrational decision,
just explain that you’re obeying the laws of quantum physics.
A new trend taking shape in psychological science not only uses quantum
physics to explain humans’ (sometimes) paradoxical thinking, but may
also help researchers resolve certain contradictions among the results
of previous psychological studies.
Zheng Joyce Wang
and others who try to model our decision-making processes
mathematically, the equations and axioms that most closely match human
behavior may be ones that are rooted in quantum physics.
“We have accumulated so many paradoxical findings in the field of
cognition, and especially in decision-making,” said Wang, who is an
associate professor of
communication and director of the Communication and Psychophysiology Lab at The Ohio State University.
“Whenever something comes up that isn’t consistent with classical
theories, we often label it as ‘irrational.’ But from the perspective of
quantum cognition, some findings aren’t irrational anymore. They’re
consistent with quantum theory—and with how people really behave.”
Their work suggests that thinking in a quantum-like way—essentially
not following a conventional approach based on classical probability
theory—enables humans to make important decisions in the face of
uncertainty, and lets us confront complex questions despite our limited
When researchers try to study human behavior using only classical
mathematical models of rationality, some aspects of human behavior do
not compute. From the classical point of view, those behaviors seem
irrational, Wang explained.
We usually think of quantum physics as describing the behavior of
sub-atomic particles, not the behavior of people. But the idea is not so
far-fetched, Wang said. She also emphasized that her research program
neither assumes nor proposes that our brains are literally quantum
computers. Other research groups are working on that idea; Wang and her
collaborators are not focusing on the physical aspects of the brain, but
rather on how abstract mathematical principles of quantum theory can
shed light on human cognition and behaviors.
“In the social and behavioral sciences as a whole, we use probability
models a lot,” she said. “For example, we ask, what is the probability
that a person will act a certain way or make a certain decision?
Traditionally, those models are all based on classical probability
theory—which arose from the classical physics of Newtonian systems. So
it’s really not so exotic for social scientists to think about quantum
systems and their mathematical principles, too.”
Quantum physics deals with ambiguity in the physical world. The state
of a particular particle, the energy it contains, its location—all are
uncertain and have to be calculated in terms of probabilities.
Quantum cognition is what happens when humans have to deal with
ambiguity mentally. Sometimes we aren’t certain about how we feel, or we
feel ambiguous about which option to choose, or we have to make
decisions based on limited information.
“Our brain can’t store everything. We don’t always have clear attitudes
about things. But when you ask me a question, like ‘What do you want
for dinner?” I have to think about it and come up with or construct a
clear answer right there,” Wang said. “That’s quantum cognition.”
“I think the mathematical formalism provided by quantum theory is
consistent with what we feel intuitively as psychologists. Quantum
theory may not be intuitive at all when it is used to describe the
behaviors of a particle, but actually is quite intuitive when it is used
to describe our typically uncertain and ambiguous minds.”
She used the example of Schrödinger’s cat—the thought experiment in
which a cat inside a box has some probability of being alive or dead.
Both possibilities have potential in our minds. In that sense, the cat
has a potential to become dead or alive at the same time. The effect is
called quantum superposition. When we open the box, both possibilities
are no longer superimposed, and the cat must be either alive or dead.
With quantum cognition, it’s as if each decision we make is our own unique Schrödinger’s cat.
As we mull over our options, we envision them in our mind’s eye. For a
time, all the options co-exist with different degrees of potential that
we will choose them: That’s superposition. Then, when we zero in on our
preferred option, the other options cease to exist for us.
With the classical approach to psychology, the answers might not make
sense, and researchers have to construct new mathematical axioms to
explain behavior in that particular instance. The result: There are many
classical psychological models, some of which are in conflict, and none
of which apply to every situation.
With the quantum approach, Wang and her colleagues argued, many
different and complex aspects of behavior can be explained with the same
limited set of axioms. The same quantum model that explains how
question order changes people’s survey answers also explains violations
of rationality in the
prisoner’s dilemma paradigm, an effect in which people cooperate even when it’s in their best interest not to do so.
“The prisoner’s dilemma and question order are two completely different
effects in classical psychology, but they both can be explained by the
same quantum model,” Wang said. “The same quantum model has been used to
explain many other seemingly unrelated, puzzling findings in
psychology. That’s elegant.”
We eat in restaurants, buy branded toiletries, build skyscrapers, create legislative institutions, travel in flying machines, write poetry, and search for meaning in relationships, temples, and scientific books. Humans have discovered antibiotics, sent probes into space, decimated rainforests, shared a billion views of clips of kitten behaviour, and decoded their own genomes.
But there is one thing that humans have singularly failed to do, and that is to properly understand their own behaviour.