Attention control is critical for changing/​increasing/​altering motivation

I’ve just been read­ing Luke’s “Crash Course in the Neu­ro­science of Hu­man Mo­ti­va­tion.” It is a use­ful text, al­though there are a few tech­ni­cal er­rors and a few bits of out­dated in­for­ma­tion (see [1], up­dated in­for­ma­tion about one par­tic­u­lar quib­ble in [2] and [3]).

There is one sig­nifi­cant miss­ing piece, how­ever, which is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance for our sub­ject mat­ter here on LW: the effect of at­ten­tion on plas­tic­ity, in­clud­ing the plas­tic­ity of mo­ti­va­tion. Since I don’t see any other texts ad­dress­ing it di­rectly (cer­tainly not from a neu­ro­scien­tific per­spec­tive), let’s cover the main idea here.

Sum­mary for im­pa­tient read­ers: fo­cus of at­ten­tion phys­i­cally de­ter­mines which synapses in your brain get stronger, and which ar­eas of your cor­tex phys­i­cally grow in size. The im­pli­ca­tions of this provide di­rect guidance for al­ter­a­tion of be­hav­iors and mo­ti­va­tional pat­terns. This is used for this pur­pose ex­ten­sively: for in­stance, many benefits of the Cog­ni­tive-Be­hav­ioral Ther­apy ap­proach rely on this mechanism.

I – At­ten­tion and plasticity

To illus­trate this prop­erly, we need to define two terms. I’m guess­ing these are very fa­mil­iar to most read­ers here, but let’s cover them briefly just in case.

First thing to keep in mind is the plas­tic­ity of cor­ti­cal maps. In essence, par­tic­u­lar func­tional ar­eas of our brain can ex­pand or shrink based on how of­ten (and how in­tensely) they are used. A small amount of this growth is phys­i­cal, as new ax­ons grow, ex­pand­ing the white mat­ter; most of it hap­pens by re­pur­pos­ing any less-used cir­cuitry in the vicinity of the ac­tive area. For ex­am­ple, our sense of sight is pro­cessed by our vi­sual cor­tex, which turns sig­nals from our eyes into lines, shapes, col­ors and move­ment. In blind peo­ple, how­ever, this part of the brain be­comes in­vaded by other senses, and be­gins to pro­cess sen­sa­tions like touch and hear­ing, such that they be­come sig­nifi­cantly more sen­si­tive than in sighted peo­ple. Similarly, in deaf peo­ple, au­di­tory cor­tex (part of the brain that pro­cesses sounds) be­comes adapted to pro­cess vi­sual in­for­ma­tion and gather lan­guage clues by sight.

Se­cond con­cept we’ll need is so­matosen­sory cor­tex (SSC for short). This is an area of the (ver­te­brate) brain where most of the in­com­ing touch and po­si­tional (pro­pri­o­cep­tive) sen­sa­tions from the body con­verge. There is a map-like qual­ity to this part of our brain, as ev­ery body part links to a par­tic­u­lar bit of the SSC sur­face (which can be illus­trated with silly-look­ing things, such as the sen­sory ho­muncu­lus). More touch-sen­si­tive ar­eas of the body have larger cor­re­spond­ing ar­eas within the SSC.

With these two in mind, let’s con­sider one ac­tual ex­per­i­ment [4]. Scien­tists mea­sured and mapped the area of an owl mon­key’s SSC which be­came ac­ti­vated when one of his finger­tips was touched. The mon­key was then trained to hold that finger on a tac­tile stim­u­la­tor – a mov­ing wheel that stim­u­lates touch re­cep­tors. The mon­key had to pay at­ten­tion to the stim­u­lus, and was re­warded for let­ting go upon de­tect­ing cer­tain changes in spin­ning fre­quency. After a few weeks of train­ing, the area was mea­sured again.

As you prob­a­bly ex­pected, the area had grown larger. The touch-pro­cess­ing neu­rons grew out, co-opt­ing sur­round­ing cir­cuitry in or­der to achieve bet­ter and faster pro­cess­ing of the stim­u­lus that pro­duced the re­ward. Which is, so far, just an­other way of show­ing plas­tic­ity of cor­ti­cal maps.

But then, there is some­thing else. The SSC area ex­panded only when the mon­key had to pay at­ten­tion to the sen­sa­tion of touch in or­der to re­ceive the re­ward. If a mon­key was trained to keep a hand on the wheel that moved just the same, but he did not have to pay at­ten­tion to it… the cor­ti­cal map re­mained the same size. This find­ing has since been repli­cated in hu­mans, many times (for in­stance [5, 6]).

Take a mo­ment to con­sider what this means.

A man is sit­ting in his liv­ing room, in front of a chess­board. Clas­si­cal mu­sic plays in the back­ground. The man is fo­cused, think­ing about the next move, about his chess strat­egy, and about the fu­ture pos­si­bil­ities of the game. His neu­ral net­works are op­ti­miz­ing, mak­ing him a bet­ter chess player.

A man is sit­ting in his liv­ing room, in front of a chess­board. Clas­si­cal mu­sic plays in the back­ground. The man is fo­cused, think­ing about the mu­sic he hears, listen­ing to the chords and an­ti­ci­pat­ing the sounds still to come. His neu­ral net­works are op­ti­miz­ing, mak­ing him bet­ter at un­der­stand­ing mu­sic and hear­ing sub­tleties within a melody.

A man is sit­ting in his liv­ing room, in front of a chess­board. Clas­si­cal mu­sic plays in the back­ground. The man is fo­cused, grit­ting his teeth as an­other flash of pain comes from his bad back. His neu­ral net­works are op­ti­miz­ing, mak­ing the pain more in­tense, eas­ier to feel, harder to ig­nore.

II – Prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions: mak­ing and break­ing habits, effi­cacy of CBT

Ha­bit­ual learned be­hav­iors are of­ten illus­trated with the ex­am­ple of driv­ing. When we are learn­ing to drive, we have to pay at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing: when to push the ped­als, when to sig­nal, where to hold our hands… A few years later, these be­hav­iors be­come so au­to­matic, we hardly pay at­ten­tion at all. In­deed, most of us can drive for hours while car­ry­ing on con­ver­sa­tions or listen­ing to au­dio­books. We are com­pletely un­aware, as our own body keeps push­ing ped­als, sig­nal­ing turns, and chang­ing gears.

We can there­fore say that driv­ing be­hav­iors, through prac­tice and at­ten­tion, even­tu­ally be­come au­to­matic – which is, most of the time, a good thing. But so do many other things, in­clud­ing some de­struc­tive ones we might want to get rid of. Let’s take a sim­ple one: nail bit­ing. You are read­ing, or watch­ing a movie, or think­ing, or driv­ing… when you sud­denly no­tice some minor pain, and re­al­ize that you have chewed your nail into a ragged stump. Ouch!

You catch your­self bit­ing, you stop. Five min­utes later, you catch your­self bit­ing again. You stop again. Re­peat ad in­fini­tum, or ad nau­seam, whichever comes first.

Cog­ni­tive-Be­hav­ioral Ther­apy has a highly suc­cess­ful ap­proach for break­ing habits, which re­quires only a very sub­tle al­ter­a­tion to this pro­cess. You no­tice that you are bit­ing your nails. You im­me­di­ately fo­cus your at­ten­tion on what you are do­ing, and you stop do­ing it. No rage, no blam­ing your­self, no nega­tive emo­tions. You just stop, and you fo­cus all the at­ten­tion you can on the act of stop­ping. You move your arm down, fo­cus­ing your at­ten­tion on the act of move­ment, on the feel­ing of your arm go­ing down, away from your mouth. That’s it. You can go back to what­ever you were do­ing.

Five min­utes later, you no­tice your­self bit­ing your nails again. You calmly re­peat the pro­ce­dure again.

By do­ing this, you are train­ing your­self to perform a new be­hav­ior – the “stop and put the hand down” be­hav­ior – which is it­self trig­gered by the nail-bit­ing be­hav­ior. As you go along, you will get bet­ter and bet­ter at notic­ing that you have started to bite your nails. You will also get bet­ter and bet­ter at stop­ping and putting your hand down. After a while, this will be­come semi-au­to­matic; you’ll no­tice that your hand went to your mouth, a nail touched your tooth, and the hand went back down be­fore you could do any­thing. Don’t stop train­ing: fo­cus your at­ten­tion on the “stop and drop” part of the ac­tion.

After a while, the nail-bit­ing sim­ply goes away. Of course, the more com­plex and more in­grained a habit is, the more effort and time will be needed to break it. But for most peo­ple, even strong habits can be rel­a­tively quickly weak­ened, or redi­rected into less de­struc­tive be­hav­iors.

It’s prob­a­bly ob­vi­ous that habits can be cre­ated in this way as well. We don’t be­come bet­ter at things we do – we be­come bet­ter at things we pay at­ten­tion to while we’re do­ing them. If you want to make ex­er­cise a habit, your efforts will be much more effec­tive if you fo­cus your at­ten­tion on your ex­er­cise tech­nique, rather than re­peat­edly think­ing how painful and tiring the whole pro­cess is.

There is also a di­rect im­pli­ca­tion for train­ing in any com­plex skill. Start with the well-known learn­ing curve effect: we gain a lot of skill rel­a­tively quickly, and then im­prove­ments slow down in­cre­men­tally as we ap­proach our max­i­mum po­ten­tial skill level. It is rel­a­tively easy to go from a poor to a mediocre ten­nis player; it is much, much harder to go from mediocre to good, and even harder to go from good to ex­cel­lent.

Com­plex skills have many differ­ent as­pects, which we usu­ally at­tempt to train si­mul­ta­neously. We can be­come very good at some, while stay­ing poor at oth­ers. The op­ti­mal ap­proach would be to fo­cus most of our at­ten­tion on those as­pects where our abil­ities are weak­est, since smaller in­vest­ments of time and effort will lead to larger im­prove­ments in skill.

To keep with the ten­nis metaphor, one could be­come very good at con­trol­ling the ball di­rec­tion and spin, while still hav­ing a poor aware­ness of the op­po­nent’s po­si­tion. Sim­ply play­ing more will im­prove both as­pects fur­ther, but our hy­po­thet­i­cal player should op­ti­mally try to fo­cus her at­ten­tion on op­po­nent aware­ness [7].

Fi­nally, there is an­other im­pli­ca­tion which I’ll leave as an ex­er­cise for the read­ers. Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, which es­sen­tially boils down to train­ing con­trol of at­ten­tion, has been shown to ex­ert a pos­i­tive effect on many, many differ­ent things (low­er­ing de­pres­sion, anx­iety and stress, as well as im­prov­ing pro­duc­tivity [8, 9, 10]). In the light of the pre­vi­ous text, one ob­vi­ous rea­son why bet­ter con­trol over at­ten­tion can pro­duce all these benefi­cial effects should im­me­di­ately come to mind.



[1] I have sev­eral quib­bles, but let’s stick to one (to pre­vent this note from be­com­ing longer than the above text). Luke pre­sents a view of dopamine re­ward sys­tem which is stuck in the early 2000’s – ages ago by the pace of neu­ro­scien­tific re­search. Dopamine ac­tu­ally has a very, very com­plex effect on mo­ti­va­tion, and is able to strengthen or weaken sin­gle synap­tic con­nec­tions based on timing of the sig­nal rel­a­tive to the sig­nals from the sen­sory sys­tems. En­do­cannabinoid neu­ro­trans­mis­sion (i.e. sig­nal­ing through chem­i­cals that stim­u­late the same re­cep­tors that are af­fected by ac­tive in­gre­di­ents in mar­ijuana) is be­ing shown as more and more im­por­tant in this sys­tem as well, and the rel­a­tive timing of the two sig­nals ap­pears crit­i­cal.

The com­plex­ity of the effects in­creases by sev­eral or­ders of mag­ni­tude when net­works are con­cerned. Con­sider this: a plan­ning-re­lated net­work in the pre­frontal cor­tex can in­fluence the mo­ti­va­tion-gen­er­at­ing net­works in the stri­a­tum. A stim­u­lus from the out­side is per­ceived by the sen­sory net­works and trans­mit­ted to the dopamine sys­tem, to the pre­frontal cor­tex, and to the stri­a­tum. The same dopamine sig­nal can, de­pend­ing on ex­act timing of ac­tion po­ten­tial bursts, strengthen synapses in the stri­a­tum, while weak­en­ing synapses in the pre­frontal cor­tex. The re­sult? The link be­tween the stim­u­lus and the ac­tual mo­ti­va­tion can in­crease or de­crease, de­pend­ing on ex­act con­nec­tivity be­tween net­works, on the rel­a­tive sen­si­tivity and on the ex­act topol­ogy of the meta-net­work in ques­tion.

See the fol­low­ing two refer­ences for a broad overview of the sub­ject area.

[2] Cal­abresi P, Pic­coni B, Tozzi A, Di Filippo M. “Dopamine-me­di­ated reg­u­la­tion of cor­ti­cos­tri­atal synap­tic plas­tic­ity” Trends Neu­rosci. 2007 30(5):211-9.

[3] Wick­ens JR. “Sy­nap­tic plas­tic­ity in the basal gan­glia” Be­hav Brain Res. 2009 199(1):119-28.

[4] Re­can­zone GH, Merzenich MM, Jenk­ins WM, Gra­jski KA, Dinse HR. “To­po­graphic re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the hand rep­re­sen­ta­tion in cor­ti­cal area 3b of owl mon­keys trained in a fre­quency-dis­crim­i­na­tion task” J Neu­ro­phys­iol. 1992 67(5), 1031-56.

[5] Heron J, Roach NW, Whi­taker D, Han­son JV. “At­ten­tion reg­u­lates the plas­tic­ity of mul­ti­sen­sory timing” Eur J Neu­rosci. 2010 31(10), 1755-62.

[6] Ste­fan K, Wy­cislo M, Classen J. “Mo­du­la­tion of as­so­ci­a­tive hu­man mo­tor cor­ti­cal plas­tic­ity by at­ten­tion” J Neu­ro­phys­iol. 2004 92(1), 66-72.

[7] I’m not find­ing good pa­pers di­rected ex­actly on this point, so I’ll just throw this out as a per­sonal opinion (al­though I’ll say it ap­pears well sup­ported by in­di­rect re­search). We all like to ap­pear com­pe­tent and skil­lful, es­pe­cially in those ar­eas where we have in­vested a lot of time and effort. This can lead to a bias where we fo­cus on us­ing those as­pects of com­plex skills we are best at, and train­ing those as­pects most in­tensely. In other words, a ten­dency ap­pears to ex­ist to do ex­actly the op­po­site of what we should be do­ing. (If any­one has en­coun­tered a name for this bias, or has refer­ences to sug­gest, I would be very grate­ful to hear from you.)

[8] Brown KW, Ryan RM. “The benefits of be­ing pre­sent: mind­ful­ness and its role in psy­cholog­i­cal well-be­ing” J Pers Soc Psy­chol. 2003 84(4):822-48.

[9] David­son RJ, Ka­bat-Zinn J, Schu­macher J, Rosenkranz M, Mul­ler D, San­torelli SF, Ur­banowski F, Har­ring­ton A, Bonus K, Sheri­dan JF. “Alter­a­tions in brain and im­mune func­tion pro­duced by mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion” Psy­cho­som Med. 2003 65(4):564-70.

[10] Shao RP, Skar­licki DP. “The role of mind­ful­ness in pre­dict­ing in­di­vi­d­ual perfor­mance” Cana­dian J of Be­hav­ioral Sci 2009 41(4): 195–201.