HomeNews & EventsP21 BlogJudy Willis: What does neuroscience research say about motivation and the brain?

Judy Willis: What does neuroscience research say about motivation and the brain?

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January 2014, 1 #4

Judy_WillisJudy Willis: Rebooting the Brain

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. is a neurologist, former classroom teacher, author of six books and over 80 articles for educators and parents, and currently gives neuroeducation presentations and conducts professional development workshops nationally and internationally about teaching and learning strategies correlated with neuroscience research. Dr. Willis is a staff writer for Edutopia and Psychology Today and an expert consultant for NBC News Education Nation. www.RADTeach.com.

Driving Question:  What does neuroscience research say about motivation and the brain?

Understanding how the brain turns sensory data into memory and understanding is illuminated by neuroscience research. An important area of study relates to student boredom and frustration  as stressors that interfere with the brain’s successful processing sensory data into learning.

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

What takes place in the brain when we experience stress? From neuroimaging studies, we see an emotionally sensitive switching station, the amygdala, on each side of the brain, deep in the limbic system. In the absence of high stress, fear, or perceived threat, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It is only in the PFC that information can be mentally manipulated into long-term memory or processed through the highest cognitive and emotional control networks of executive functions. The ability to evaluate one’s emotions before either responding to an emotional trigger or choosing to ignore it is a uniquely human trait that also requires communication between the PFC and the lower reactive brain.

However, this reflective response cannot take place during the high-stress emotional state which blocks the flow of information to and from the PFC. We now see that prolonged or frequent frustration or boredom are associated with the high stress state in the amygdala.

Boredom and frustration are frequent intruders on brain function in today’s classrooms. Boredom can come from lessons that have little personal relevance, and from instruction and drills that cover information students have already mastered. Frustration can result when students don’t understand instruction and feel they lack the capability and access to the support needed to succeed, especially when they have previously tried to understand a topic and repeatedly failed to achieve the required goal mastery.

When boredom and frustration persist or intensify, the amygdala stress state is sustained and information taught or practiced is blocked from reaching the prefrontal cortex for memory construction as students eventually fall behind. A cascade of tuning out builds to decreased academic success and negative reactive behavioral consequences disrupts both memory construction and reflective control of behavior.

Whenever the amygdala is highly activated by this stress response, it sends incoming information to the lower, involuntary, quick-response brain, where the behavioral reactions are limited to the primitive fight/flight/freeze survival mechanisms. In humans these involuntary behavioral reactions to stress can manifest as “acting out” or “zoning out” and memory cannot be constructed. With failure of input to be constructed into long-term memory, students’ lose confidence that their efforts applied to school will result in achieving the required goals. They acquire a fixed mindset and spiral further into effort withdrawal and school alienation.

A Model for Rebooting Motivation and Perseverance

There is a reboot that can help students regain resilience and motivation. An example of this brain phenomenon is seen in the neurobehavioral responses of dedicated video game players. Understanding the brain response to the video game model can guide classroom instruction – NOT to substitute video games for teaching, but to incorporate into teaching the elements of the video game MODEL that can reignite students’ confidence and effort for classroom learning.

In a sequential level video game, there is prediction (what move to make) and immediate feedback about the accuracy of that prediction. In most popular games, players’ moves are incorrect up to 80% of the time when they playing at the appropriately challenging level, yet they persevere and use the feedback to adjust their play.

Video game play on leveled games (e.g. levels I to X) also provide a more intense feedback when players achieve the challenge of mastery of a level of play and are advanced to the next, more challenging level of the game.

What the video playing brain finds compelling from is the intrinsic motivation from the dopamine-reward system that is extremely powerful in motivating our brains to do things that have been associated with the release of dopamine. Boosted levels of dopamine in this intrinsic gratification state result in the experiences of pleasure, reduced stress, increased motivation, and perseverance. Two of the most powerful activators of release of dopamine from the dopamine reward system are in response to feedback that the mammal has made an accurate prediction (choice/answer) or has achieved a challenge.

An 11-year old, who had learned about how the brain responds to stress, dopamine, neuroplasticity and more, told me, “The games are challenging, but not so hard, so I know if I work at a task I can make it. I use the feedback from my mistakes to figure out what I need to do to differently to get to the next level. When I do, wow, do I feel great. It is called intrinsic satisfaction and comes from my own brain’s chemical, dopamine each time the game shows me that I’ve moved a step closer to my goal.”

We can learn much from the video game model components of buy-in, individualized achievable challenge, and frequent feedback of effort to progress on route to the goal, not just on reaching a final goal. You can follow links below to learn more about how to design instruction, assessment and feedback with the components that can sustain or rebuild motivation, perseverance, engagement, and the joy of learning that accompanies a growth mindset. 

Educators with background knowledge about the neuroscience of learning have greater access to tools of science to add to their professional skill sets. The windows into the brain we now have through neuroimaging, electrical deep brain recording, epigenetics, and brain mapping provide valuable information for teachers now and with the newest tools just beginning to be turned to the learning brain, the future is particularly exciting.

For a listing of Judy’s books about the Brain and classroom strategies, watch for the list of brain resources on the January 31 post.


Coming up next:                                       

1/14        Reuven Feuerstein: Beyond Smarter                                                                                               

1/15        Margaret Glick                              

1/16        Jim Bellanca

1/20        Carol Tomlinson

1/21        Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson

1/22        Nancy Budwig


Comments (2)

  1. Great article - thank you!
    The last paragraph is particularly powerful and very quotable.
    Let's have more of this!
  2. Almost every day I find myself at the crossroads of gaming and learning theory in my role as a solution architect. You describe the positive learning that can be generated from taking a gaming approach with levels and tasks that while difficult, can be mastered. We use learning science like this when we build games for corporate learning environments. In addition to the levels, one of my favorite game design strategies is tailoring to different types of "gamer" styles such as achievers, competitors, socializers, etc. I write about gaming and learning design on my blog at http://www.sweetrush.com/author/Erin.Krebs/.