As a runner, I'm constantly practicing my "mind game" — the mental strategies I use to try to make my body go farther and faster than it comfortably wants to go. Some tricks work, others don't, and it's always a challenge to figure out what will be motivating on any given day.
But what if I could see my brain activity and learn which mental strategies were "lighting" up my motivational centers and which were falling flat? I could spend my time fine-tuning the stuff that works and not worry about the rest.
That kind of motivational feedback might soon be available, thanks to some interesting research from scientists at Duke University. The study, which was published in a recent issue of Neuron, looked at neurofeedback and how it can be used to help people understand what motivates them.
The study focused on a part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area or VTA, which is a small zone deep within the brain that's a prime source for dopamine, the chemical transmitter known to play a role in motivation, learning and memory. Previous research has found that activity in this area is a good indication of whether or not a subject will successfully remember something.
For this study, researchers asked participants to come up with their own mental strategies to try to activate the VTA zone. Some participants imagined their coaches or parents cheering them on while others imagined various rewards for their efforts. Using localized MRI imaging, researchers found that none of the participants were able to consistently activate their VTA zones on their own.
But the researchers flipped the tables and allowed some participants to see exactly which strategies were creating activity in the VTA. These participants were then able to more effectively "light up" that area, even after the feedback was subsequently removed. In comparison, the participants who did not see their brain activity were still unable to activate their own VTA.
Imagine the implications of being better able to understand what makes your brain tick. It could help a person who suffers from depression learn exactly which strategies could help prevent a downward spiral. It could make the difference between a successful diet and one that starts strong and putters out. And maybe it could even help runners like me to fine-tune the mental tricks to keep going strong.