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Brain Battle: The Process of Motivation

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Today's Toronto Globe and Mail has a great article on how motivation works in the brain, at the level of actual neuro activity in the various structures of the brain. I've provided the link, above, in case you want to read the whole thing. And it's a fascinating story, given that motivation is something that concerns so many of us. However, it's not exactly your "easy read", so here's the condensed version related to the weight loss experience (at least, so far as I'm I'm able to understand it myself).

Essentially, the neuroscience researcher Mark Fenske has discovered that positive motivation arises when the "reward" centres of the brain win out over the "loss" centres of the brain.

In other words, in deciding whether to pursue any particular goal -- including weight loss-- the brain performs a kind of cost/benefit analysis. The motivation story is about an internal battle between various centres of the brain.

We decide to accomplish a goal, such as losing weight. Then our brain considers: How rewarding would it be to accomplish the goal? Some areas of the brain evaluate the rewards (for weight loss, better health, better appearance . . . all the reasons we have to lose weight) -- and a positive evaluation of the rewards associated with a particular goal will result at least initially in motivation. We're gung ho!! We're roaring off all speed ahead to lose a pound a day!! Yay!!

And quickly lose momentum. Because the brain's motivation centres are continually dealing with backtalk from other brain areas. No one likes to be unsuccessful, or to pay more to achieve something than it is worth to him or her.

So these "backtalk" or demotivation brain centres ask other questions designed to protect us from the sting of failure. How likely is it that I will be unable to accomplish the goal? These negative and anxiety-stimulating brain centres evaluate the risks I won't be successful (how many times have I tried in the past and not stuck with the program, or lost weight only to regain it again? and how difficult was it to lose that weight in the first place?)

If these risk and loss factors seem very large, then the brain decides to submit to demotivation rather than experience defeat. The brain determines, for example, that weight loss would require too much effort getting out of bed to exercise, it would require too many sacrifices of delicious foods in social situations, and that in any case I won't be able to keep it up. The result? Giving up. Regaining the weight loss in that first flush of enthusiasm. And probably a few more pounds.

Do it. Don't do it. Do it. Don't do it. When it comes to motivation, or its opposite demotivation, apparently that's what happening inside our brains all of the time. A measurable brain battle of conflicting neuroactivities.

So: how can we strengthen the motivation centres of the brain and weaken the demotivation centres?

This brain battle doesn't need to be an unconscious one.

We can choose quite deliberately to focus on the positive brain signals.

We can deliberately choose to pay greater attention to the positive "do it" signals.

We can deliberately choose to pay less attention to the negative "don't do it" signals.

After all, because I had failed to lose weight up until age 50 did not mean that I was destined never to lose weight. I did lose 80 pounds between 2001 and 2002. I have kept it off, and since January I have lost about 10 pounds more and kept it off. I now weigh more than 90 pounds less than I did in 2002. But: I was yoyoing, fluctuating.

Using the Judith S. Beck Advantage Response cards (from her book, The Diet Solution) was simply a method of focusing my attention on the rewards of losing weight. To adopt her language, it was a method of strengthening the resistance muscles and weakening the giving-in muscles. It was a method of learning to think like a thin person. And for now at least it does seem to have stopped the yo-yoing of that last 10 pounds on/off/on/off.

"Do it" (motivation) is winning: "don't do it" (demotivation) is losing. My brain battle was made manifest in my body: up 10 pounds, down 10 pounds, up 10 pounds, down 10 pounds.

I stopped permitting myself to dwell on fear of failure. I stopped permitting myself to focus on how hard it is to plan my nutrition and exercise.

Instead I have deliberately chosen to pay attention to the rewards of clothing that fits, feeling slim and healthy.

And I've discovered that it isn't that hard to plan nutrition and exercise, especially with the SP trackers. I've learned that sustaining the motivation to maintain weight loss has simply turned out not to be as hard as I had anticipated.

At least most days!!

The Fenske research on the brain battle of motivation reinforces my experience with Judith S. Beck and with SparkPeople.

We're here to pay attention to the centres of the brain that focus on the rewards of weight loss: better health, better appearance . . . . all of that.

On a cost/benefit analysis: yeah. It's worth it. So worth it.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I saw this last week and didn't have time to read it, but remembered it and had to go back and find and read the whole article tonight. Very fascinating how the brain works. It makes you think of what some of your issues might be and how to change the pattern! Thanks for the link emoticon
    2491 days ago
  • BLUESKY_321
    Thanks Ellen -a great read for another rainy day! So easy on these days to feel unmotivated! And it's the kiddos first day of summer vaca which means more snack food in the house ... time to exercise my resistance muscle!!!!
    2495 days ago
  • OPHELIA105
    We can deliberately choose to pay greater attention to the positive "do it" signals.

    We can deliberately choose to pay less attention to the negative "don't do it" signals.

    I luuuurve this

    And think it is so right - it clearly puts the responsibility for our behaviour on our own shoulders - it is very empowering.

    We are the masters of our own destiny..
    2495 days ago
    This is so interesting. Thanks for the synopsis. It is one more source reinforcing the idea of emphasizing the positive benefits and downplaying the negative arguments. That is the constant battle we deal with. Apparently, just like every other behavior or habit we are trying to change, the more we win that battle, the easier it gets to win.
    2495 days ago
    Cheers and hooray to making the process more conscious! It helps to have a compelling vision to work toward: healthy vibrant body, clarity of thought, positive self-image, being one's best in the world.
    I am wondering if it is time for me to read Beck's book. Maybe I can get a used copy on Amazon. I'll take a look.
    Thank you, Ellen! You rock!
    2495 days ago
    Most of the time, if my motivation flags, I can get it back by returning to something that the "demotivating" part of my brain can't argue with, explain away, or wriggle out of:

    Eating in my calorie range and meeting my exercise goals leads to weight loss.

    Every single time, without fail.

    When I do it right, it works.

    Kinda hard to get around that.

    Besides, nothing tastes as good as healthy feels, right?

    2495 days ago
  • ERIKO1908
    I'm working hard daily to have the "Do it" win out!!! Thanks for posting the "condensed" version... :)
    2495 days ago
    You are so right. It is absolutely worth it! And I am doing many of those things to make the debate more conscious. I will continue. Thanks for reminding me and increasing my understanding of motivation and our brain functioning. Good job! -Marsha
    2495 days ago
    2495 days ago
    I think part of it is also the entire issue of delayed gratification - I can either eat a brownie sundae NOW and enjoy it immediately, or I can NOT eat it now (or any day for a year) and probably be a size or two smaller at the end of the year. The child in us usually kicks and screams and throws a tantrum, and then we relent and eat that brownie sundae NOW for the immediate enjoyment, and hope that we do better and still are a size or two smaller at he end of the year. Which, obviously, doesn't work if we keep giving in to that inner child.
    2496 days ago
    Focus on the positive - can't do much better than that!
    2496 days ago
    Fantastic blog, Ellen!
    2496 days ago
  • NANCY-
    so true...
    At the store, practicing resistance... I ask myself one question:
    "Will this take me to my goal?"
    Dr. Beck was wonderful in helping me clarify my goal. Knowing what we want gives us that direction .. so we can choose our actions.
    Aversion therapy doesn't work for me... I'm all for the benefits side ... what good I am doing for me.
    WTG on liking how your clothing fits.
    2496 days ago
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