Marshmallows and Motivation

Eat one marshmallow now, or get two marshmallows in a few minutes. That’s the decision a group of three- to five-year-olds had to make in a now classic study. The researchers found that the children best able to resist temptation were more successful later in life. Now, decades later, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists are beginning to understand that link.

In a recent study, researchers scanned subjects’ brains as they worked on puzzles for nine minutes. After nine minutes had passed, subjects could choose whether to continue working on the puzzle. The scientists found that the people who continued to work on the puzzles were intrinsically motivated, with decreased neural activity. The low neural signaling suggests brain energy conservation, meaning that those subjects could continue working longer on the puzzle and, if they made an error, they had the extra resources stored to make a correction.

Who:
Pearl Chui, PhD

What’s Cool:
Several psychiatric diseases are influenced by a lack of motivation – depression – or an influx of motivation – addiction. By understanding the neural mechanisms behind motivation, scientists might be able to develop ways to control them.

Learn More: Mind over marshmallows: Scientists find that self-motivators use less brain energy

Where to Find It:
Marsden KE, Ma WJ, Deci EL, Ryan RM, Chiu PH. Diminished neural responses predict enhanced intrinsic motivation and sensitivity to external incentive. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 2014.

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