Research shows the brain can be trained to get motivated


He is a good kid, really. If ever there was a caption for someone, your son’s would read: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You may have tried everything to kindle his motivation, and he means well, it just doesn’t seem to click. What if there were a way for him to reach inside his psyche and activate his drive? A new study now demonstrates the possibility.

Motivation: clap off, clap on

A study published just this spring in the journal Neuron demonstrates brain training in an fMRI could jumpstart the mind’s circuitry for willpower. Study authors explain the cluster of neurons in the brain, called the ventral tegmental area, is responsible for motivation.

Researchers observed the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in 73 study participants using an activity scanner on the brain called an fMRI. When the researchers asked participants to self-motivate and make a certain part of his or her brain light up, naturally people couldn’t do it. But when the participants were allowed to see their personal brain activity reflected on a heat meter tracking the motivation hub in the brain, self-directed VTA activation was apparent.

The neurofeedback meter operated like training wheels on a bike. Once participant proved they could activate their own VTA by having a visual on the progress, they were able to do it without the visual thereafter. Motivational strategies included:

  • Personal pep talks
  • Singing Queen songs
  • Running down a line, high-fiving people
  • Pretending a coach was yelling

Even the researchers got in on the personal pep rally fun, conducting fMRI on each other.

Neuroscientist John Gabrielli says these findings mean help for the unmotivated individual is not too far off.  “The hugely exciting piece of this is whether now people can use this upcoming research to gain control of behaviors that are challenging.” He lists healthy eating, quitting smoking and addiction as possible uses.

Noninvasive approaches to getting inside the brain

This is not the first modality to train the brain to achieve certain healthy behaviors. As mentioned in a previous article, video games, movies and music are being used in neurofeedback to train the brain to self-regulate.

Neurofeedback is a modality that essentially tracks brain state and offers cognitive rewards for operating in a particular state. For example, a highly reactive individual may need greater self-control, a function governed by alpha brain activity.

Neurofeedback is under the umbrella of biofeedback, which is therapy using sensors affixed to different parts of the body to measure stress and bring awareness to help control personal body dysfunctions, reactions or habits, from smoking to insomnia to post-traumatic stress disorder.

If your boy struggles with mental disorder or addictions and motivation efforts just don’t seem to click, White River Academy can help. This not a place for bad kids, rather, an accredited educational, therapeutic, structured and family-directed place for inner exploration and personal development. The positive peer culture and varied treatment modalities make our facility pivotal in rearing teenage boys out of disorders and addictions, into healthy maturity. For enrollment details call our helpline.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. 

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