A Study of Motivation

Adcock, R. Alison_heashot“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 Dana Foundation grantee R. Alison Adcock has asked herself since she was child, and which have led her to focus her scientific research on motivation.

In our new interview with Adcock, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, she discusses how her lab is using blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) imaging to study brain systems involved in producing motivation.

One of the most important findings from her work is evidence that rewards are perceived differently by different people. She explains,

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.

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Looking forward, Adcock hopes her research can help inform how to enhance learning, not only in the classroom, but also in other learning contexts like psychotherapy and behavior change.

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.

Read more about Adcock’s work in the complete interview, “A Study of Motivation.”

—Ann L. Whitman

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