Neurofeedback Illuminates Personalized Ways to Self-Motivate

Activating the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is the key to motivational thinking.

Posted Mar 04, 2016

Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons
The midbrain (seen in red) is home to the ventral tegmental area (VTA).
Source: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons

In a groundbreaking new study, Duke University neuroscientists have pinpointed fascinating ways that individuals can learn how to manipulate specific neural circuits linked to motivation using personalized thoughts and mental imagery.

The researchers at Duke used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain imaging as part of a neurofeedback program that enabled participants to witness in real-time when they had successfully activated their ventral tegmental area (VTA) reward circuits.

The March 2016 study, "Cognitive Neurostimulation: Learning to Volitionally Sustain Ventral Tegmental Area Activation," was published in the journal Neuron.

Neurofeedback Advances the Capabilities of Biofeedback Machines

In the 1970s, biofeedback became a household term as part of the growing awareness of the mind-body connection. Biofeedback traditionally uses any type of apparatus that can measure a variety combinations of physiological activity including: brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity, and skin temperature.

Neurofeedback is the 21st century version of biofeedback. What's so exciting about neurofeedback is that with advances in brain imaging technology it's possible to pinpoint very specific motivational thoughts and images that inspire a particular individual. 

National Institute of Health/Public Domain
The VTA produces dopamine and is a vital  part of the mesolimbic reward pathway. 
Source: National Institute of Health/Public Domain

The VTA is a tiny area within the midbrain that produces dopamine. Dopamine pathways in the brain play an important role in the regulation of motivation, reward, and physical movement. As part of the "mesolimbic" reward pathway, dopamine is manufactured in nerve cells located within the VTA and is released into the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.

Interestingly, the motor functions of the VTA are part of a feedback loop that is linked to a separate pathway. Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward molecule” because it can drive both positive motivations, as well as addictive behaviors. The power of dopamine makes the activation of the VTA a key player in all types of self-motivation and volition.

In the new study, the Duke researchers asked participants to generate feelings of motivation by using a variety of their own personal strategies. Each person did this during 20-second intervals until he or she hit on a thought or image that activated the VTA.

Participants were able to observe the neurofeedback of their thoughts in the form of a fluctuating thermometer inside the fMRI. This direct neurofeedback allowed him or her to adjust motivational thoughts and develop personalized strategies to keep the VTA active. Compared to control groups, the neurofeedback-trained participants successfully elevated their VTA activity while others were less successful.

Courtesy of Jeff MacInnes, Duke University
This illustration shows an experiment in which subjects received real-time feedback during an fMRI scan that showed individual activity in a reward center of their brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA).  By watching a fluctuating thermometer individuals fine-tuned personalized ways to self-motivate.
Source: Courtesy of Jeff MacInnes, Duke University

After reading this study, I realized that as an ultra-endurance athlete, I spent decades in both training and competition pinpointing what gave me that “Ding. Ding. Ding.” feeling of reward and motivation by releasing a hit of dopamine from my VTA. I realize now that I was actively stimulating my VTA and administering dopamine to stay self-motivated.

As an athlete, I developed an arsenal of motivational triggers that I would file through systematically until I found one that gave me a very specific feeling of inspiration. For example, sometimes the smell of sunscreen and the association of clear blue summer skies and bright sunshine could trigger an association that kickstarted my mesolimbic pathways; sometimes it was an inspirational song; sometimes it was a visualization of an awe-inspiring place from my past; sometimes it was a mantra, etc. 

Finding motivational thoughts can be a lot like throwing spaghetti against the wall until you have a strand that sticks or pushing "next" on the shuffle mode of iTunes until you randomly hear a song that hits the spot. 

During sports training and competition I would bombard my motivational circuitry with every trick I had up my sleeve until I hit the jackpot and got a rush of inspiration. Again, I realize now that through this randomized trial and error of seeking self-motivation, I was doing the same thing that the participants in the Duke study were doing inside an fMRI when they could see the thermometer associated with VTA activation rise through neurofeedback.

According to the researchers, participants in this study used a variety of different motivational strategies, from imagining parents or coaches encouraging them, to playing out hypothetical scenarios in which their efforts were rewarded. The most exciting news is that the self-generated boost in VTA activation worked even after the thermometer display was removed and people were back in the real world. Only the participants who had received accurate neurofeedback were able to consistently raise their VTA levels.

What Is the "Volition Switch"? 

As a young athlete, I was cognizant of the feedback loop between physiological states and psychological mindset based on conversations with my father who was a neuroscientist and my tennis coach. In adulthood, when I began training and competing internationally as an athlete, the lessons I learned on how to have "grace under pressure" using relaxation response techniques helped me stay calm and not choke.

However, there was another component beyond relaxation that was even more important to becoming a world-class athlete than staying calm. In order to develop the endurance to become an ultradistance triathlete and do things like run 153.76 miles in 24 hours, I needed to sustain unwavering levels of self-motivation. I had to figure out ways to stay motivated, to train hard and practice consistently, even on days when I felt totally uninspired and burnt out.

For a neverending wellspring of motivational thoughts, I relied on a rolodex of lessons and tricks I'd learned through decades of life experience on how to stay self-motivated. I also borrowed from the wisdom of other athletes. For example I'd surround myself with motivational quotations by such people as Muhammad Ali saying, "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.' I run alone on the road, long before I dance under the lights."

My father’s expertise in neuroscience helped me identify specific ways to visualize motivational thoughts inside my brain. Just like I was able to visualize my vagus nerve squirting acetylcholine on my heart during times of relaxation to kick start my parasympathetic nervous system and minimize the stress response of fight-or-flight... I would visualize my "volition switch" being turned on by a motivational thought or inspiring visualization.

When it came to motivation, my father always referred to something he called the "volition switch" and “the spark plug of free will.” My dad had gotten this idea from one of his mentors, John Eccles, who won the Nobel prize in 1963 for his work on synapses in the peripheral nervous system and the link between a sensory neuron and a muscle neuron. On p. 116-117 of The Athlete’s Way I write,

Eccles believed that the signal of the mind to tell the cerebrum what to fire the motor neurons that would make the body move came from the mysterious source of human volition or the self-willed mind. Eccles claimed that the volition neurons are continuously ready to fire. Just triggering a single one of these specialized nerve cells creates a domino effect, a chain reaction that spreads like wildfire from a few thousand to engaging billions of synapses.

I visualize the volition switch to be a huge light switch just behind my forehead with on and off, go/stop on it.  The key to flicking the volition switch lies in pre-visualizing the movement and sending your inner dialogue down from your frontal lobes. Researchers have found that the thicker and denser the neurons get with exercise, the easier it is to guide positive cross talk to trigger the volition switch.

Researchers can literally see the spark of volition in an fMRI, just as you can feel it. Anytime you decide to go, remember that you have flicked the volition switch. Anytime you decide to quit, you have turned it off. The next time you decide to do something like get up from the couch or break from a walk to a jog, pay attention to the millisecond of volition that proceeds muscle movement.

Practice keeping the volition switch in the up and locked position. This is one of the easiest tricks for kick-starting a workout or getting through it. Once that trigger has been turned off, the synapses along that network will stop firing. This is quitting, and giving up. Don’t reinforce this habit; always fight to the finish. Keep the volition switch in the up and locked position.

I wrote the passage above over a decade ago. Since then, I've had my antennae up for research that elaborates on the things I learned through my own athletic process and conversations with my father so that I can update this knowledge and share it with my readers based on the latest neuroscience.

It was exciting to wake up this morning and read about the breakthroughs that the researchers at Duke University have made on neurofeedback. In my mind, their discoveries are revolutionary because they illuminate the fact that we can use neurofeedback to identify a personal thought or image that turns on someone's "volition switch."

Also, with this knowledge you can road test your own type of neurofeedback by paying attention to what inspires you, tagging it, and using it the next time you feel uninspired. 

Conclusion: Neurofeedback Fine-Tunes Personalized Ways to Be Self-Motivated

In a press release, the study's senior investigator, R. Alison Adcock, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences, concluded,

"These methods show a direct route for manipulating brain networks centrally involved in healthy brain function and daily behavior. Because this is the first demonstration of its kind, there is much still to be understood. But these tools could offer benefits for everyone, particularly those with depression or attention problems."

Adcock's team has been striving to identify specific ways that thoughts and behavior can fine-tune brain function for the past eight years. In this time, they've developed unique brain imaging tools that allow them to analyze complex fMRI data instantaneously and to display it to participants as neurofeedback while that person is in the fMRI scanner.

Adcock points out that one caveat of this study is that the team has not tested whether the neurofeedback drives specific changes in behavior. That said, the group is currently working on creating these studies and also plans to conduct the same neurofeedback study in participants with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is exciting stuff! Stay tuned for updates on how this type of research can help you stay motivated. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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