What To Do When You Can’t Go On
When does your brain urge you to keep working, and when does it tell you it’s time for a rest? Researchers are learning more about the nature of such messages, writes my friend Maia Szalavitz on Time.com:
“New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers insight into how people decide when to keep going and when to take a break. That decision apparently hinges on a specific signal that at its peak—say, when your muscles are screaming that you can’t do another rep or your brain refuses to focus on the page —prompts you to quit. And when your body and brain are refreshed and ready to go again, the signal quiets down and gets out of your way.
The peaks and valleys that trigger these decisions, however, are not pre-set: they’re influenced by how much effort you’re expending and how big a reward you expect from the work. The bigger the reward and the smaller the effort required, the more likely you are to keep going until you’ve done what needs doing. As you work, it seems, your brain continuously calibrates your breaking point in relation to your expectations of gain.”
To understand this signaling, researchers led by Mathias Pessiglione of the Motivation Brain and Behavior Laboratory of INSERM in Paris, France, imaged the brains of 39 people while they squeezed a handgrip with the most strength they could muster, trying to earn varying monetary rewards. Maia continues:
“During the challenge, the brain scans showed activity in a region involved in pain perception, known as the posterior insula. The signal there became more intense when greater effort was required—but less strong when the same level of effort was connected with a bigger potential reward. Bigger rewards also led to a muted signal during rest periods between the tests, meaning people would both expend more effort and require less rest when more was at stake.
The authors write, ‘[This] process might implement the intuitive psychological phenomenon that, when motivated, we literally push back our limits,’ allowing us to worker harder for longer.”
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of feeling that we can’t work (or exercise, or do anything difficult) for a moment longer, and then remembering what we’re striving for and finding the strength to go on. It’s good to know that, as Maia puts it, our limits are not “pre-set” but can be affected by environmental factors under our control (i.e., we can promise ourselves a reward or motivate ourselves in other ways).
What works to motivate you when you encounter that “I can’t go on” feeling?