An Interview with R. Alison Adcock, M.D.,
| ||Assistant Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences|
Core Faculty, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
Dana Foundation Grantee: 2008-2012
When R. Alison Adcock tells
people she studies the brain and conation, they often reply, “Wait, do you mean
Her choice of word is no slip of the tongue. Conation is the
mental faculty driven by purpose and volition. And much like emotion, it has
the power to shape the way we perceive and interact with the world around us—as
well as determine the things we learn and remember. Her laboratory studies how
states like desire and curiosity can facilitate so-called “motivated memory,”
or the way the brain selectively encodes the memories that are of the most
value to us.
What first interested you in conation?
What makes us curious? What makes us play with our environment and
investigate it? Why are some people more curious than others—and why does my
own curiosity wax and wane over time? These are questions I’ve been curious
about from the very beginning of my career as a researcher and thinker. My
parents would even tell you I’ve been asking these questions since I was four.
So, by the time I got to college, I was really interested in how we learn and
how curiosity drives us in one direction or another.
What are some of the challenges of trying to
study something like motivation?
When you talk about motivation with respect to another person or
another creature, you’re really making a guess about what is actually
motivating them from their behavior and the environment. We humans can say what
we think we’re motivated by, but we’re actually not good reporters of it. The
idea that we can get a read-out from a brain system that’s involved in
producing motivation is helpful. It gives us—not a true index of motivation,
obviously—but a reliable, direct report that you don’t have to interpret.
Here are networks, made up of regions like the ventral
tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain, and ventral striatum,
or the amygdala and bed nucleus of stria terminalis, which can act as an
indices of motivation. And these systems, as well as their interactions with the
prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and medial temporal lobe, produce the affect, the
motivation, and the behavior. And it’s either on or it’s not. We use blood
oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) imaging to study these systems—and there are
some nuances in how we interpret what we see. But it’s still an index that
tells us something is happening in the brain and you don’t have to rely on a
guess or someone’s self-report to see if the external world is having the
impact you expect. I find that really reassuring. And one of the things that
has felt most productive from our work is evidence that rewards mean very
different things to different people—and we can see that in how their brains
Tell me more about these individual
Some people’s brains respond to monetary rewards and other things
that look good in a stereotypical way. But others respond to those same rewards
with what looks more like fear or anxiety—those people don’t benefit from
rewards for learning in the way that others do. That’s pretty relevant to many
realms of human education and growth. We just have to figure out how to really
map this on to processes that we can tame and implement in real world settings.
Speak to neuroscientists and educators and
they emphasize the importance of curiosity and self-motivation to success in
school. How can your work help us facilitate that?
The challenge, always, is to figure out an incentive structure that
gets kids focused on the activity without them trying to game the system and
only work for external rewards. That’s the problem with extrinsic rewards. And
that’s really the focus of my laboratory right now: to answer the question of
what circumstances produce curiosity and to see if we can teach people to
generate that state for themselves. From what we understand about the brain
systems for motivation, you can’t be afraid, you can’t be anxious—because
anxiety systems really clamp down on curiosity and produce stereotyped, rapid,
simple responses that short circuit the kind of playful curiosity we’re so
interested in facilitating in education and in therapy, too.
But I think it starts with creating playful reward anticipation.
And even before that, creating a place where people feel safe and valued—not
tense and worried. All those pieces have to be in place. We can put puzzles in
front of people, but if they aren’t orienting to them in this affective
motivational state, it’s not going to work. So we can’t just look to
rewards—but the brain state that precedes the activity and fuels that
curiosity. For example, if you give a child M&Ms for violin practice, they
can’t be contingent for some particular behavior. If they are, what you’ll get
is more of that specific behavior, which is not necessarily going to induce
exploratory behavior. You could give M&Ms before or after violin practice,
no matter how well it went. It might work, but the tit for tat of reinforcing
violin is probably not going to inspire the playful attitude you want either.
And we see that punishments are even more problematic. The
comparisons between reward and threat motivators show that threat motivators
are likely to impair learning—and that has great implications for many
educational strategies like high-stakes testing. Motivation, whether it’s
positive or negative, has profound impact on what happens in the classroom. We’re
still trying to understand all the ways that these states can influence the way
students learn, and ultimately extend these insights to other learning contexts
like psychotherapy and behavior change.
How do you think your work helps us better
understand how memory works as a whole?
There has been this long-standing idea that the brain is like a
computer and memory is a record of everything that goes on around you. People
talk about memory like it’s a tape recorder. But, of course, we know that
people remember some things better than others. So the mystery, for me, has
always been what things? Why? Cognitive psychologists are very focused on the
characteristics of the things. Is it memorable? Is it distinct? Is it uncommon?
These features can produce memory formation. But we know that can’t be the
whole explanation. You give the same kids the same things to learn and some
kids will remember more than others. Some will remember different things than
Our work suggests that the motivational systems prime the
hippocampus to record what’s important. And it’s a powerful explanation for why
we remember what we do. It’s a brain state that makes us more receptive to
incoming information. We have seen that different kinds of memories are formed
from what is, externally, the exact same stimulus. The behavioral demands of
the task are exactly the same. But if we alter the motivational state of the
brain, we see that emotion and motivation are not just filtering memory to say
what’s remembered and what’s not. They also shape the structure, the form of
the memories, to enhance behavioral responses when you encounter similar
situations in the future.
What results from your studies have most
It was surprising that we saw so much variability in the way
people respond to rewards—and that some people responded like we were
threatening them with an electric shock when we promised them money for doing a
maze. Laying it all out in the brain systems made it clear that individual
differences in motivation aren’t just rhetoric. It showed that how people were
being driven really determined how well people learned. Those results drove a
lot more questions about how important it might be to flesh this out more
fully—because the implications for so many different fields of human endeavor
are so obviously affected.
We’re now working on a series of studies where we’re asking people
to try to generate these motivational states on their own. We simply asked
people to just envision a motivated state. We gave them a few examples, like a
coach saying encouraging words or a physical triumph of some sort, but we
really left it up to the participants to find imagery that worked for them.
I thought that we could just ask people to do this because they
are so good at gearing up to get things done, especially in an academic
setting. I thought they would do this pretty reliably and we’d see this in
the BOLD activation in the midbrain, where the dopamine neurons reside. But
when study participants were asked to do this, it was pretty unreliable. Some
people were able to activate this brain system, others couldn’t. But then we
gave them feedback on different techniques that might work—and showed them
their activation in the midbrain. At the end of 20 minutes, people were able to
activate the system with that feedback. So the surprises there were two-fold.
One, people weren’t better at motivating themselves. Second, they could use our
feedback to select strategies and do it better with no external stimuli. Those
are fun outcomes with a lot of different implications.
There are so many circumstances in which we have to
self-motivate and get things done. It’s easy to think about this as intrinsic
motivation—but that implies doing something for the enjoyment you get out of
the activity. This is more deliberate and volitional. We could perhaps use this
to see if we can enhance learning in the same way that curiosity and other
types of motivation do, by increasing encoding by hippocampal networks and
cortical representations in long-term memory. But, in addition, because this
sustained activation of the motivational system is closely related to
pathological states like attention deficit disorder and addiction, there’s the
possibility that training someone to maintain activation of this system could
be used as an alternate to some kind of pharmacological manipulation of the
system. And, as a psychiatrist, I’m interested in whether engendering that kind
of motivational state could enhance the progress of learning-based therapies,
or what most people call psychotherapy.
So where do you take your investigations from
I’m very interested in how we can enhance learning. As someone who
is interested in mental health, how can we take the behavioral learning-based
therapies we use in mental health and make them work better? In many cases
behavioral interventions are safer than drug interventions. Also, we will
continue to think about how intrinsic motivation and curiosity help drive
healthy growth and learning. Not just in developmental fields—because even
adults need to feel like they have the power to manipulate their environments to
behave more productively.