Insper professor Luciana Lima studies how the pandemic affects motivational systems and undermines young adults’ performance in their studies
The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has reached a critical moment with increasing cases and new travel restrictions. The return to social distancing raised important questions regarding the motivation to study and work and its impact on performance, especially among young adults.
For Insper professor Luciana Lima, who holds a graduate degree in neuroscience, young adults face three main challenges at this time of the pandemic. They are the lack of motivation, absence of social interaction, and difficulties in managing expectations of returning to normalcy. “From one day to the next, this young person was removed from a stimulating environment for studies, in which motivation came very naturally in the company of peers and exchanges with instructors. As days went by, expectations of return were being created and sequentially frustrated, according to the stages of isolation proposed by authorities.”
According to Prof. Luciana, those three challenges become peculiar due young adults’ neural features. See below our interview with Luciana and understand how to improve performance in your studies:
What is and how does motivation work for neuroscience?
Motivation comes from movement, that is, from the need to move from a current condition to a future condition. In students’ case, it is what makes them wake up, get up, enter the remote classroom, and keep their attention sustained throughout the class session. It involves, besides attending, engaging in and enjoying the class, being part of it, giving contributions, doing the activities. In short, “moving around.”
Part of this is a pure routine mechanism. It is expected to be already incorporated, like waking up and getting up. As for the other part, it is specifically they “getting engaged.” It depends heavily on their internal reward system.
However, what does the internal reward system have to do with motivation?
That system is absolutely unconscious and involuntary. Its basic principle involves the role of dopamine. It is a neurotransmitter directly involved in producing the sensation of pleasure when doing something. It, therefore, leads us to do and repeat some kind of behavior. And that is totally personal. It can be delightful for a student to partake in some class sessions due to a particular theme and not in others. Likewise, there is a preference regarding instructors and also the methods used.
In a simplified way, it is understood that the system of preferences and rewards was developed from a very positive experience in the past, related to contact with certain characteristics of content, class session style, or learning method. The exciting thing is that just anticipating the experience of doing something you like is enough to trigger the release of dopamine in the system. It initiates the will to do it, which will automatically be reinforced at the end of its execution. That’s why the more we do things we enjoy, the more we want to keep doing them.
How does motivation relate to a young adult’s neural characteristics?
In young adults, motivation is entirely connected with their social experiences — one of the things most impacted by the pandemic. It is in this phase of life that students are able to establish comparisons between their lives’ different realities. It is the moment when they are able to identify with different social groups, experiencing gains in freedom and autonomy.
In this age group, the experience of pleasure is more dependent on a differentiated and strong stimulus to assert itself. That is due to the brain development involving dopamine. It means that for something to be cool, it has to be really cool.
Is it related to the growing sense of difficulty in learning?
It is essential to consider that the neural areas pertaining to judgment are not fully developed in that age group. Therefore, there is a limited ability to understand risk. That, associated with the frustration generated by the longing for social moments at school, ends up interfering in the judgment process about what, how, and how much is being learned. It is shown [in studies] by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne. The problem is to keep your attention focused on that, failing to enjoy good times and to engage in learning.
How to reduce this feeling of frustration?
The suggestion is to test some alternatives and evaluate your reactions. Remember, there is a need for repetition, a constancy in the practice of this suggestion to achieve any positive result.
A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience demonstrates that fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds through the eyes of others, and to return from these experiences in a different way, in a different mood, with a more positive feeling. In other words, the tip here is to immerse yourself in fictional stories through series and books that can provide positive experiences.
From the University of Geneva, another study concluded that emulation, the process of imagining a movement without actually making it, activates the brain network in the same way as actual movements. So, the suggestion is that you use your imagination to return to your favorite memories of the good times you experienced in your studies. It is a way to enjoy a sense of well-being and manage your motivational state.
Another important aspect is to observe the confirmation bias of your frustration. In practice, it means validating, with like-minded colleagues, only the negative aspects of the moment experienced, and. A study published in Nature Communications suggests that a way to increase cognition and executive functions (thought control, mental flexibility, working memory) in young adults is to explore the possible gains in each situation — in this case, remote classes and greater virtuality.
As a strategy to promote engagement for a class session, you can stop for a minute and try to remember something cool that happened in the course or is related to it. Researchers at Columbia University state that the brain reproduces and prioritizes high-reward events for later recovery. That is, if you remembered something from the last class, it is because it was meaningful and positive and maybe a trigger to activate the reward system for the current class.