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How to build the power to overcome challenges

We all know and love motivation. It feels great and acts as the perfect engine to move towards our goals. But it is mostly nonsense. Seriously, relying on motivation to get stuff done is what causes so many to feel stuck. So, what’s the move when motivation goes missing? Some give up, some wait it out, some try to ignite their motivation again… and a rare few just get on with it. These people have something that keeps them going even when motivation takes a vacation – it’s called tenacity. 



Tenacity, also known as the quality of being determined or persistent in the face of challenge, has recently been linked to a structure in our brain called the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC)1. This structure is known to be involved in cognitive functions such as motivation, learning, decision-making, conflict and error monitoring and cost-benefit calculation2. Now, that is all pretty cool information alone, but here’s where it gets really interesting… 

 

In a 2013 study by Parvizi and colleagues3, it was found that when stimulating the aMCC, subjects reported feeling like something was about to happen. But not in an anxious, paranoid kind of way. In a “something is about to happen and I’m ready for it” kind of way. In fact, one subject compared it to sensing a storm approaching while knowing they had to face it but that they would make it through. Another reported feeling like something uncomfortable was going to happen but that they would be able to resist and push through it. How insane is that?! (The nerdy neuroscientist in me was jumping while reading this). 


Another study looking at the aMCC in subjects taking part in moderately high aerobic exercise observed a resulting increase in this area of the brain4. In a recent talk on the subject, neuroscientist Andrew Huberman suggested the increase had to do with resistance against the task5, seen as subjects weren’t regular exercisers and therefore must have had to summon a significant amount of willpower to take part in it. Makes sense, right? But here’s the thing, resistance against or desire to complete the task was not measured – so what if they fell in love with it? We don’t know, they weren’t asked. But at the same time, there was no aMCC size boost in the group doing less strenuous exercise, so maybe this change in aMCC volume really can be associated to tenacity to power through discomfort.

 

Now, why would you even care about boosting your aMCC volume? It's a little tricky to explain, but bear with me. The data hints that when you activate the aMCC, you get a surge in willpower and tenacity. And here's the twist - when there's an increase in willpower and tenacity, the aMCC gets fired up too5. It's a loop, get it? One thing amps up the other. So, the idea is that by doing one, you're building up the ability to call on the aMCC for willpower and tenacity more efficiently down the road. But how can we do that? 

 

By doing things that suck. Argh. Just a little. And safely. Here are some examples: ending your shower with 30 seconds of cold water; adding 100 jumping jacks to your cardio workout; holding off for another hour before breaking your fast. You get the gist of it, right? What’s crucial is to get through something you feel resistant to. That is the key to increasing your tenacity, and potentially even longevity (wait, what????) – but that’s a conversation for another blog, just thought I’d drop that bombshell. For now, happy powering through! 


 

Leticia Hosang, BSc


Leticia is a sports science, sports psychology and neuroscience researcher, previously working with Brunel London University and exploring the effects of exercise on brain activity.


 

References:


  1. Touroutoglou, A., Andreano, J., Dickerson, B. C., & Barrett, L. F. (2020). The tenacious brain: How the anterior mid-cingulate contributes to achieving goals. Cortex123, 12-29.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7381101/

  2. Apps, M. A., Rushworth, M. F., & Chang, S. W. (2016). The anterior cingulate gyrus and social cognition: tracking the motivation of others. Neuron90(4), 692 – 707. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4885021/#:~:text=Accounts%20of%20the%20anterior%20cingulate,2012%2C%20Kolling%20et%20al.%2C 

  3. Parvizi, J., Rangarajan, V., Shirer, W. R., Desai, N., & Greicius, M. D. (2013). The will to persevere induced by electrical stimulation of the human cingulate gyrus. Neuron80(6), 1359-1367.  https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(13)01030-1?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0896627313010301%3Fshowall%3Dtrue 

  4. Colcombe, S. J., Erickson, K. I., Scalf, P. E., Kim, J. S., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., ... & Kramer, A. F. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences61(11), 1166–1170.  https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/61/11/1166/630432?login=false 

  5. Huberman, How to increase your willpower and tenacity. https://www.hubermanlab.com/episode/how-to-increase-your-willpower-and-tenacity 

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