How to Train Your Brain to Love Doing Difficult Things

As a mountaineer, I struggle against gravity while scaling walls and their rocky holds. But my arms invariably tire, my grip slips from sweat, and sometimes my nerves ask me if I should stick to easier climbing routes.

Trying to do hard things is, well, hard. And exerting ourselves physically and mentally often hurts us.

Yet we seek these challenges without any obvious extrinsic rewards. I pay a monthly fee for the experience of waving and falling in a climbing gym.

Others go even further, climb mountains, run marathons or even ultramarathons. And many people spend their free time exercising their minds on crossword puzzles, strategizing in board games, or playing video games.

Our tendency to do difficult things that make us feel bad is what researchers call the effort paradox. try hard is expensive and aversive, but it’s something humans appreciate.

Our brains are constantly performing cost-benefit analyzes on choices and actions. When we work hard, the anterior cingulate cortex located near the front of our brain follow our efforts, and its neural activity appears to be associated with the severity of exertion. These stress cues help our brain assess whether it’s worth keeping trying or doing something else.

Historically, the fields of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics have focused on the very intuitive notion that making an effort is difficult most of the time. When presented with a choice between two cognitive tasks, people clearly prefer to do the easier one and are willing to accept fewer rewards to avoid having to put in more effort. A recent study found that people are willing to accept physical pain to avoid cognitively demanding tasks.

And it’s not just humans who like to be lazy. What scientists call thelaw of least effortalso seems to apply to animals. Rats, too, avoid physically challenging parts of the maze and cognitively demanding tasks.

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Mental exertion also has a physical impact: our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous systems fire up, our pupils dilate, and our heart beats faster.

Effort “feels bad, and we tend to avoid it. That’s why it’s expensive,” said Michael Inzlicht, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Yet at the same time, “there’s something about pushing yourself that feels precious and enjoyable too.”

One obvious reason we make an effort is for the end product, whether it’s a championship trophy, a personal best, or a year-end bonus. Generally, “in the real world, the harder you work, the more rewards you tend to get,” Inzlicht said.

Neuroimaging shows that the ventral striatum, a brain region that plays a key role in processing rewarding outcomes, is most strongly activated when we achieve something by greater effort than less effort.

The more effort something takes, the more we tend to enjoy it.

People are willing to pay more for an object they built themselves than for the same object built by experts – an aptly named phenomenon IKEA effect.

But why do we value efforts that hurt? Why do mountain climbers and other outdoor thrill seekers crave “Type II pleasure” even when the effort itself is terrible in the moment?

A study suggests that the answer may lie in effort. Researchers found that the rewarding effort — not the outcome — made people search for more difficult tasks latereven if they didn’t get any additional rewards.

In the first experiment, 121 people were fitted with electrodes to monitor their cardiovascular activity as a physical measure of how hard their brains were working on a standard memory task.

A group of participants was rewarded according to the effort provided. Another group was rewarded with random amounts of money regardless of their efforts.

Then, the same participants were given a different mathematical problem-solving cognitive challenge and were allowed to choose the difficulty. Importantly, participants were informed that they would not be paid for this part of the experience.

Despite this lack of extrinsic reward, participants who were previously rewarded for their efforts decided to tackle more difficult math problems compared to participants who got random rewards.

The second set of experiments conducted online with nearly 1,500 participants found a similar result: again, participants who were previously rewarded for putting in more cognitive effort chose to solve more demanding math problems for free.

The study suggests that we can learn to enjoy the journey, regardless of the destination. The effort itself can be rewarding.

Although the effects were relatively small, the results were exciting given that the workouts only lasted about 15 minutes, said Veronique Jobprofessor of motivational psychology at the University of Vienna and author of the study.

“How we value effort is determined by what we experience in day-to-day life. We have this whole history of learning” in schools and at work which tends to reward results and accomplishments more than the effort we put in, Job said. Yet a short stint in the lab allowed participants to appreciate the intrinsic value of mental labor After.

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The new study is just a starting point for understanding how to train to push harder.

This doesn’t mean you’re going full throttle in all areas of your life all the time: overwork, burnout, and possible injury aren’t healthy or desirable outcomes.

But being able to try hard is a useful skill for achieving ambitious goals that you enjoy. In a preprint study that has yet to be peer-reviewed, Inzlicht and colleagues found that people who find meaning in their efforts tend to report greater satisfaction and meaning in life as well.

Finding the value of effort is why we are able to climb mountains and find that hidden reserve of strength during a race or as we approach a deadline.

For her part, Job has applied her findings to the way she runs her lab. Celebrations now happen when grant applications are submitted, not just when they’re accepted, so “it’s tied and more dependent on actual effort,” she said.

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Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? E-mail [email protected] and we may answer it in a future column.

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