Having reviewed a lot of the research into mindfulness, and understanding from a neuroscience perspective that it can actually change the brain and increase grey matter, and therefore make us smarter, I still don’t practice mindfulness on a regular basis. This got me thinking, why am I not motivated to do this, even though I know it works and could improve my brain function?
Being the good neuroscientist that I am, I thought I would look at this from a scientific angle. Can neuroscience tell me why I cannot motivate myself to change this behavior?
The brain is wired to put value on effort and reward. The lower the effort and the higher the reward, the more motivated we are to undertake the task. For example, people are highly motivated to play lotto, it requires little effort, but the potential reward is significant. However, undertaking a task of say cleaning your house, with no appreciation or acknowledgement of the work put in, results in being extremely unmotivated to do the housework (at least this is true in my case!).
As I mentioned in a previous blog, the reward centre of the brain can significantly change behavior due to the release of dopamine in the brain, which can be even greater with the expectation of reward, than the reward itself – this is why so many people play lotto! So the question is, how can I develop both an expectation of a reward and a reward itself to motivate myself to practice mindfulness?
Firstly, I need to write down what these rewards will be, such as reducing stress, making you smarter, helping you sleep better, and reducing the risk of anxiety and depression – all good rewards. This will start my brain thinking about the expectation of the reward. I also need to dedicate a set location and time to practice mindfulness, and ensure that my written rewards are visible at that location, again reinforcing the expectation of reward. I like the idea of practicing mindfulness before bed, and so I will give this a go, setting aside 5 minutes a night before I go to sleep to read the rewards and then practice mindfulness. This is a small enough effort to get my brain going.
However, to assist with motivating myself is to actually experience the reward at some point so my brain can release dopamine associated with that reward, and then the anticipation of that reward will be more significant. My brain will remember how it made me feel when I received the reward and want to experience that feeling again. It is much like going to the gym. After a workout you feel great (dopamine release), and that great feeling is motivation to keep you going. When you don’t go, you lack energy and feel flat (at least I do anyway). However, if you leave it too long between gym sessions the memory of that reward can fade, and motivation decreases. So I need to sustain my mindfulness practice to the point where I start experiencing the rewards I have written down, this will cause a dopamine release from the reward of these changes, and cause my brain to crave receiving these rewards again.
So I’ll set myself a challenge of 4 weeks. Can I motivate myself to practice mindfulness through eliciting a reward and thereby releasing dopamine in my brain? I’ll report back on my progress.
In the meantime, can you challenge yourself to do something similar, whether it is mindfulness, going for a run, cleaning the house! Or more work related tasks such as some of the admin jobs you’ve been putting off.
Challenge yourself and see how the power of the brain can influence your motivation.
Dr Liz Dallimore is a Director in KPMG Perth’s R&D Incentive team. Liz completed her PhD in Neuroscience at Oxford University and the University of Western Australia studying neuronal regeneration. She undertook further research at the Australian Neuromuscular Research Institute looking at the effect of neuroplasticity on stroke rehabilitation.