You may have heard about a recent study from the University of Washington on the science behind motivation, in which researchers concluded that a group of cells known as nociceptin neurons are responsible for all the times you stared deeply at the directions for putting together your newly purchased dresser and thought: Screw this.
According to Medical Xpress, the nociceptin neurons are located near the ventral tegmental area of the brain that also contains neurons that release dopamine during all the times you’re doing something that you enjoy. “The big discovery is that large, complex neurotransmitters known as neuropeptides have a very robust effect on animal behavior by acting on the VTA,” Christian Pedersen, the lead author of the study, told Medical Xpress.
Per the same report, the researchers examined neurons in mice (because it’s always mice that must be tortured for the ostensible betterment of humanity) seeking sugar. “The mice had to poke their snout into a port to get sucrose,” reports Medical Xpress. “At first it was easy, then it became two pokes, then five, increasing exponentially, and so on. Eventually, all the mice gave up.” To which I say, I get it, I’d have given up too. But also, the researchers discovered that at their breaking point, the mice’s neural activity recordings showed a flood of nociceptin neurons.
While this new research reveals an intriguing scientific angle for motivation, it’s hardly the first time scientists have looked into why we “give up” when we do. In fact, psychologists have a name to describe this theoretical default human setting. “Ego depletion is a theory that proposes that people have a limited amount of self-control, or willpower, and that this is reduced every time we exert it, for whatever reason,” reports Lifehacker Australia. “In an experiment to demonstrate this, researchers have found that if they give their test subjects two tasks that require self-control, the subjects show less self-control in the second task than those subjects who were first given a different task not requiring self-control. In other words, doing any task requiring willpower makes any subsequent task that much harder to do.”
It should also be noted that “giving up” isn’t always a bad thing. According to a 2003 study on undergraduates who were asked to report on their unattainable goals (such as people who want to grow old with a spouse, but can’t do so if their spouse dies at an early age), “the tendency to disengage from unattainable goals was associated with lower life stress, fewer intrusive thoughts about one’s problems and feeling more control over one’s life,” reports the Berkeley Science Review. “The flip side of this is that the tendency to stay engaged with unattainable goals was associated with more stress, more intrusive thoughts and feeling less control.” Additionally, the study found that when faced with unattainable goals, people tend to move on and reengage with new goals.
The latest research on nociceptin neurons does at least give scientists some new ideas for how to help people who struggle with chronic forms of lack of motivation. “We might think of different scenarios where people aren’t motivated like depression and block these neurons and receptors to help them feel better,” Pederson said, per a report in Science Daily. “That’s what’s powerful about discovering these cells. Neuropsychiatric diseases that impact motivation could be improved.” Not to mention that this new research could also give scientists greater insight to figure out ways to modify nociceptin neurons in order to help people suffering from addiction.
The idea isn’t without its complications, though. “The issue, of course, is that some of these systems are multifaceted,” says David Zald, a professor of psychology at the University of Vanderbilt and Director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. “If we manipulate some of those systems, we’re not just manipulating the thing we intend to manipulate, there’s a chance we take something along with it. Many of these circuits are not just one to one — they link to multiple functions, so there’s always a chance you will push this in a problematic direction.”
One great example, according to Zald, is addiction. “There’s a reason we give opiates to people,” he says. “The purpose is to take care of pain, but unfortunately they don’t just impact pain. Therefore, it has this much broader impact on addiction. If we could fine-tune those opiates where they just affect pain, we wouldn’t have the issues we have.”
None of which matters to you, dear reader, because I’m betting you gave up on reading this article about five paragraphs ago.