Motivation and the Teenage Brain

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1 Motivation and the Teenage Brain Ellen J. Maclean B.Sc. Hons., B.Ed. In the role of education, the individual students motivation within the classroom is a critical aspect to learning success. You can lead a horse to water but you can t make it drink a common saying that is often used to describe a student who is disengaged in a lesson or is difficult to motivate to complete school work. Although motivation is a very complex subject, there are physiological aspects to the human bran that can be understood to further explain behaviours in adolescents. This paper examines the neurological aspects of the developing adolescent brain with respect to motivation. Motivation is a state that energizes, directs, and sustains behaviours (Ormond, 2012). Within the classroom, motivation is observed within students as they engage in lessons, activities and assignments. Motivation also provides a force to propel students in a particular direction while providing momentum to keep them going. Whether this behaviour emerges as the student showing motivation to text and play with their cell- phones or whether the motivation is to ask questions and actively learn the course material is a key difference that educators should understand. Although educators do not need to be experts in brain physiology to understand motivation in their students, they must have some appreciation of how multifaceted the brain is in order to more fully appreciate the complexities involved in education (Caine, 1991). 1

2 The ideal classroom for any educator is a group of students who are intrinsically motivated to learn. These students are often referred to as self- propelled learners. Intrinsic motivation, more specifically, is the internal desire to perform a particular task (Ormond, 2012). What commonly happens in the classroom is that, due to physiological and behavioural contributors, educators must structure lessons such that learning is driven by the desire for students to achieve good grades, recognition, accomplishment or other extrinsic factors. This extrinsic motivation is the desire to perform a particular task based on factors external to the individual and unrelated to the task being performed (Ormond, 2012). Often times, as adolescents develop they rely heavily on extrinsic motivation and have troubles transitioning to a self- driven method of intrinsic motivation. One way the educator can implement strategies to affect intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation is to understand the different types of memory in the adolescent brain. The two types that are most relevant to this application are taxon memory and locale memory. The taxon model involves storage of information first in a short- term or working memory section of the brain called the hippocampus and then with repetition, through routine or rehearsal, the memory is stored in a long- term memory area of the brain (Caine, 1991). Information housed in the taxon memory system differs greatly from memory associated with locations and interconnected events. This alternate type of memory is referred to as locale memory and includes special memory and relationship memory where maps or 2

3 associations of information are formed easily and quickly in the brain (Caine, 1991). Locale memory is thought to be survival oriented and as it occurs naturally in the brain, researchers view it to be virtually unlimited. Both the taxon memory and locale memory systems interact with each other in that the locale system makes use of the contents of taxon systems where the locale system registers a continuous story of life experience made up of the taxon system parts of the story (Caine, 1991). Understanding these areas of memory come into context with motivation when approaching lessons in the classroom. Teaching strategies that present information related to specific outcomes in lecture and/or textbook format heavily activates areas of the brain responsible for taxon memory (Caine, 1991). Because of this, extrinsic motivation is most likely to occur unless students have a prior interest or internal purpose related to the subject material (Caine, 1991). Teaching strategies that utilize students making connections between subject material and personal connection help students build internal relationships and in turn utilizes locale memory allowing the brain to naturally tie all facts together (Caine, 1991). Examples of these types of teaching strategies include experiential lessons, cross- subject approaches, impact to society, relevance to student interests and inquiry- based lessons. Because locale memory easily links to previous context housed in the adolescent brain, personal curiosity and past experience is invoked in the subject material allowing students to rely on intrinsic motivation for learning (Caine, 1991). Interestingly, lessons that stimulate intrinsic motivation through locale memory put less stress on brain cells in those areas of the brain which makes it easier for students to engage in this type of learning for longer periods of time (Caine, 1991). 3

4 Memory formation, both taxon and locale, can be disrupted by chemical factors in the body. Studies have shown that memory formation is adversely affected in the presence of high levels of cortisol (Corbin, 2008). When the body is under stress, the adrenal medulla releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, which stimulate fight- or- flight responses. Under long- term stress, these hormones stimulate the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. In chronic stress- related situations, such as depression, sustained cortisol levels in the brain can cause damage to areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, which is a key area in memory and learning (Corbin, 2008). Also, the brain s short- term, or taxon, memory and the ability to form new memories are significantly inhibited (Corbin, 2008). Educators should be concerned about the amount of stress their students incur both inside and outside of the classroom as it has both physiological and physiological effects on the students and their ability to learn. Development in the human brain naturally occurs from back to front as we grow through childhood and adolescence. In early childhood, physical coordination is a primary area of development as key centers such as the cerebellum are fine tuned to control motor control, impulses and basic reasoning. Emotional centers controlled by the amygdala are the next major area to be tuned during early- mid teens. This can be observed at the neurological and behavioural levels as over- reactive and highly stimulated. Moving forward towards the front of the brain is the nucleus acumbens, the center responsible for motivation. The nucleus acumbens 4

5 begins to develop during mid- teens and continues development until mid to late twenties. The last area of development is the prefrontal cortex, which is located in the frontal lobe of the brain and is primarily responsible for judgment (Drug- free America). Neurologists, neurobiologists and psychologists have been studying the development of the adolescent brain in great detail for decades. Much work has been done to understand the link between teenagers and observable behaviours such as emotion, motivation, risk- taking, addition, depression and substance abuse. All of these areas are intimately linked to each other as the observable behaviours stem from the combination of the developing areas of the brain outlined previously. Motivation in the brain is closely related to functions of reward and pleasure. The operation of the nucleus accumbens relies on the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin (Canadian Institute of Health Research). Dopamine affects the brain synapses in the control of body movements and is linked to sensations of pleasure and desire. Serotonin is responsible for regulating temperature and sensory perception and effects include mood control. Both serotonin and dopamine, especially the latter, are also critical neurotransmitters within the central tegmental area (VTA), an area that works closely with the nucleus accumbens (Canadian Institute of Health Research). The VTA is the primary pleasure center in the brain and is responsible for synthesizing dopamine, which then sends the neurotransmitter to the nucleus accumbens through their connecting axons 5

6 (Canadian Institute of Health Research). This regulation of dopamine is directly affected by factors such as mental health and recreational drug use, which brings us back to the close connection of substance abuse, depression and motivation. A study by researchers at UCLA focused specifically on the relationship between dopamine and motivation in the adolescent brain. In this study participants performed a learning task where they categorized items and provided feedback, and monetary rewards, for each correct answer (Cohen, 2012). In examining motivation of the adolescent participants, researchers examined using fmri how their brain s responded to reward prediction error. Reward prediction error is the difference between an expected outcome of an action and the actual outcome (Cohen, 2012). What they found was that teenagers showed the highest spikes in reward prediction error, which means they had the largest dopamine response in the brain. This spike in dopamine correlates to increased motivation for the teenagers to acquire more positive outcomes or in other words, more risk. This study is one of many examples of the interconnection between brain physiology specifically motivation centers and risk- taking behaviour in adolescents. Another key scientific study completed in 2004 by James Bjork at the US National Institute n Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that adolescent brains showed less activity during a brain scan in regions of the brain associated with motivation (Vince, 2004). The initial focus of the study was to look at the willingness of adolescents to engage in dangerous activities, such as drunk driving. 6

7 What they found was that brain scans showed a significant under- development of the right ventral striatum centered in the nucleus acumbens in teens compared to adults, even though when questioned about the risk and reward stimulus of the study, both groups responded equally (NIAAA, 2004). Bjork explains this finding in that it appears that the brain circuitry in motivation to get rewards is under- engaged in teenagers and so it explains why they need extreme stimuli to achieve the same level of brain activity. The difference in activity may be exaggerated when the reward is not instant, which may explain why teenagers have difficulties achieving long- term goals (Vince, 2004). Another interesting neurological finding from this study was that researchers found that although adolescents showed less activity in the motivation centers of the brain, the mesial frontal cortex showed similar activation to adults (NIAAA, 2004). This area of the brain is associated with reward- directed behaviour, which indicates that when adolescents are placed in situations that provide extrinsic motivation, they react physiologically the same as adults. For educators and schools, taking into consideration the most recent brain based research is extremely beneficial in analyzing and planning responses to adolescent behaviour. The understanding of the development of key areas of the brain and the interconnectedness of aspects such as stress and learning, stress and memory, memory and motivation, motivation and risk- taking can help educators understand the reasoning behind certain behaviour. Having this information can be used proactively in the classroom to influence teaching strategies, as outlined 7

8 previously in tis report, for the purpose of increasing student success in their learning. When the impacts are understood, areas such as stress- management can be monitored and proactively dealt with before it becomes an issue with learning and/or behaviour. Most of all, the understanding that motivation in the adolescent brain is a multifaceted process and that it is interconnected to other key aspects can allow educators to be patient with the teenage learning process. Bibliography Caine, R. C. (1991). Teaching and the Human Brain. Alexandria, VA: Banta Company. Canadian Institute of Health Research. (n.d.). The Pleasure Centers Affected by Drugs. Retrieved 02 01, 2012, from The Brain from Top to Bottom: Cohen, J. e. (2012). A unique adolescent response to reward prediction errors. Nature Neuroscience, 13 (6), 669. Corbin, B. (2008). Unleashing the Potential of the Teenage Brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. Drug- free America. (n.d.). Adolescent brain and behavior. Retrieved 02 01, 2012, from Why do teens act this way?: NIAAA. (2004, 02 26). Adolescent brains show reduced reward anticipation. Retrieved 02 01, 2012, from NIAAA News Release: Ormond, J. S. (2012). Principles of Educational Psychology (2nd Edition ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada. Vince, G. (2004, 02 25). Teen brains show low motivation. Retrieved 02 01, 2012, from New Scientist: teen- brains- show- low- motivation.html 8

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