Giving It Your All: How Your Brain Decides If It’s Worth It


“Quitters never win” is an adage that has been drilled into too many of us, while never giving up is seen as admirable — and perhaps you have been criticized before for “giving up too easily.” In some cases, persevering may be sound advice — but there are times when quitting can and should be seen as an admirable decision — since it’s rarely the default decision that we come to right away — and takes some serious consideration.

Given the range of reactions to decisions made by Olympic contestants Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka — with both athletes being heavily criticized for giving priority to their own mental health and recusing themselves from their respective athletic competitions, which both were heavily expected to win — it’s as good a time as any to take a deeper dive into this topic.

There’s clearly a time and place to determine if “giving up” is the most ideal — whether it’s just finishing work early for the day or deciding that the career you’ve been pursuing over the last few years isn’t really for you — but the hard part is determining when we’ve come to that crossroad.

Fortunately, your brain has its own circuitry for when it comes to making such a decision — weighing the physical and mental exhaustion that you put into the task at hand versus the reward — both materially and in terms of what it does for your mental well-being.

When Fatigue Strikes

A study published in Nature Communications, looking at the neural mechanisms behind perseverance, proposes that there are two different kinds of effort-based fatigue that can decimate our own willingness to make any effort in exchange for reward. The first kind of short-term fatigue is known as “recoverable,” whereas its counterpart, a longer-term form of fatigue, is “unrecoverable.”

In their work, researchers at the University of Birmingham and University of Oxford decided to ask: “What are the hidden internal states that change how we subjectively value effort over time and prevent us from persisting?” They hypothesized that we tend to pursue the reward whenever our brains gauge that the payoff of the reward is actually worth the degree of work needed in order to obtain it.

The researchers were surprised to find that the functional MRI brain scans taken of their test subjects revealed that certain regions of the frontal cortex were independently activated when the brain underwent the “hidden states” of recoverable fatigue and unrecoverable fatigue. Under these conditions, recoverable fatigue is just a short-term feeling, which the individual can gradually sleep off with a short nap. Unrecoverable fatigue, however, builds up gradually — and rest periods don’t necessarily help — as it curtails an individual’s motivation and keeps them from following through on a significant task.

The people who were diagnosed with unrecoverable fatigue were given a computer-based assessment that required them to perform physical exercises for a small reward for however long they kept playing. When the test subjects decided to call it quits, fMRI scans of their brain indicated stronger signaling in both the middle frontal gyri and the anterior rostral cingulate zone. In participants who decided to resume the game after taking a short break in another room, the posterior of their rostral cingulate zone in the frontal cortex showed signs of activity.

The research team also uncovered that when the individual makes up their mind after careful deliberation on the worth of a hypothetical reward relative to how much hard work is necessary, a circuit in the brain’s frontostriatal system is turned on — and weighs signals measuring the individual’s fatigue levels against the reward’s worth. Messaging from the brain’s ventral striatum is what’s keeping you at finishing that jigsaw puzzle or finishing the project before the big day, perhaps making the dinner plans afterward seem more inviting.

“We found that people’s willingness to exert effort fluctuated moment by moment, but gradually declined as they repeated a task over time,” said the study’s first author Dr. Tanja Müller. “Such changes in the motivation to work seem to be related to fatigue — and sometimes make us decide not to persist.”

So, what does this mean for our own day to day lives? “This work provides new ways of studying and understanding fatigue, its effects on the brain, and on why it can change some people’s motivation more than others,” says the paper’s senior author Dr. Matthew Apps.

This could be the key to understanding and reshaping a great deal of society as we know it — reshaping the drive of people in the workplace and at school — and even helping athletes to continually outperform themselves.

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