One way in which educational neuroscience research can have an immediate and direct effect on modern education is through evaluating whether the theories and techniques which are currently used in schools are plausible, given the neuroscientific and cognitive evidence. This rather humble, constraining role is in contrast to the popular image of neuroscience as a shiny new tool with which to revolutionise classroom instruction (and as a result is far less likely to attract any funding). Still, I see it as a crucial first step in providing practical applications linking the lab and the classroom coherently. As an example, let’s take the case of motivation. Do common ideas about motivation in the classroom coherently reflect what we know about motivation in the brain?
Most of us have an intuitive and seemingly common-sense psychological intuition that motivation and enjoyment are intrinsically linked. If we find something enjoyable, then presumably we will want to do it again. The obvious conclusion for educators to draw is that if we want motivated students, we must focus our efforts on making learning as enjoyable as possible for them. Indeed, trainee teachers are taught this very concept; teacher training courses will often cover intrinsic motivation, where the satisfaction of performing the action itself provides the motivation to repeat it. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the classic example of this idea, though there have been many other adaptations since (see e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Glasser, 1990, 1998; Ryan & Deci, 2000). All these theories assume a close, even necessary, connection between liking something and wanting to repeat it. But is this assumption supported by what we know about the neuroscience of motivation? I would argue that it is not.
Liking is not the same as wanting
Evidence emerging over the last 20 years of research into the neuroscience of motivation has begun to strongly suggest that merely finding something pleasurable may not actually be enough to generate a motivational state; in fact, liking something and wanting to repeat it may be dissociable. In an excellent review of neuroscientific models of motivation and their relevance to education, Kim (2013) writes:
This means that a state of liking for a specific object or activity cannot be understood as a motivational state and that liking is not a prerequisite for generating motivation. From this perspective, liking refers to an emotional state whereas wanting has more to do with motivation and decision utility (Berridge and Aldridge, 2008).
Liking and wanting seem to be governed by separate brain systems. Berridge (2003) found that they are actually processed by distinct, anatomically separate Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc) regions which can operate independently of one another. In addition, liking and wanting may involve different neurotransmitters, as artificially suppressing dopamine release can reduce wanting behaviour towards a stimulus without reducing the degree of liking for it (Berridge and Robinson, 2003). Berridge concluded that dopamine was only important for increasing the ‘incentive salience’ ̶ the degree of wanting ̶ of a stimulus, and in turn therefore producing a motivational state to repeat it, rather than for regulating the liking of the stimulus itself.
Whilst this distinction between liking and wanting may seem initially counter-intuitive, it is actually one that we are all pretty familiar with in our everyday lives. Many of us will recognise that it is perfectly possible to be highly motivated to perform an action, without finding the action itself intrinsically pleasurable. Take exercise, for example. Many people have strong desire to exercise (exercise has a high ‘incentive salience’) and are therefore motivated to exercise regularly. For a good proportion of these people, however, the actual process of exercise, the in-the-moment sensory experience of it, is not in itself pleasurable. A less wholesome example of the same process is drug abuse. Drug addicts show a stark dissociation between liking and wanting. They may come to hate the drug itself, but the incentive salience is such that they crave it nonetheless (Berridge and Robinson, 1995).
The ‘Liking vs Wanting’ distinction in education
So what relevance has this neuroscientific distinction between liking and wanting for education? I would say quite a lot. If we accept that the incentive salience of an object is not intrinsically linked to our liking of it, then suddenly the rationale behind many teaching strategies is thrown into question. As Kim (2013) concludes:
There is a need for careful reconsideration of the argument in which the school activity should be enjoyable to generate motivation because pleasure and enjoyment may not automatically lead to motivation.
When considering the motivation of students in lessons, we have a natural tendency to think in terms of ‘liking’, prioritising the immediate gratification of an enjoyable activity and assuming that this will create a motivational engagement. Instead, the strongest impact on motivational processes seems to derive from the separate brain circuits governing ‘wanting’. Uncovering which techniques promote wanting to learn within schools is a question for classroom research rather than the lab (see footnote 1), but the answers are likely to lie in approaches which eschew short-term emotional gratification in favour of challenge and student satisfaction over a longer time frame (see footnote 2).
So how can neuroscience influence education?
Much of the debate around the potential impact of neuroscience on education surrounds its potential (or otherwise) to create revolutionary, novel, teaching techniques. I think that is an unnecessarily restrictive approach. The application of the neuroscience of motivation to the classroom is a great example of how neuroscience (and cognitive psychology) research can be used to critically appraise and fine-tune what we do already, rather than re-invent the wheel. Maybe neuroscience never will revolutionise the way that information is delivered in schools (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it didn’t). But providing teachers with a reasoned and evidence-based justification for resisting the pressure to prioritise cheap emotional gains at the expense of long-term challenge and satisfaction, whilst also reassuring them that this is more likely to produce motivated students, rather than less? That’s not bad for starters, is it?
An extended version of this post originally appeared on my personal blog.
1. An ongoing programme looking at this very issue is the Sci-Napse project run by Paul Howard-Jones from Bristol University and funded by the EEF and the Wellcome Trust. The study is based on lab findings that the dopamine responses in brain areas associated with creating incentive motivations are stronger when rewards are provided in an uncertain or inconsistent fashion. This makes sense; uncertain rewards have been known to be highly motivating to behaviour ever since Skinner’s experiments with rats and pigeons from the 1930s. Some teachers may have ethical qualms about student learning being influenced through targeting the same circuits that were hijacked to produce the uncontrolled, addictive behaviours produced in Skinner’s pigeons, but it’s an interesting approach.
2. Of course, the most effective methods are likely be ones which are able to produce both ‘liking’ AND ‘wanting’. The interaction between the two produces stronger responses than either individual system (Smith & Berridge, 2007) and also more strongly predicts positive work outcomes (Turban & Yan, 2016). I focus here on the importance of ‘wanting’ because of its specific relationship to motivation and also because of its tendency to be neglected in the classroom.
Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (1995). The mind of an addicted brain: neural sensitization of wanting versus liking. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(3), 71-75.
Berridge, K. C., and Valenstein, E. S. (1991). What psychological process mediates feeding evoked by electrical stimulation of the lateral hypothalamus? Behav. Neurosci. 105, 3–14.
Berridge, K. C., and Robinson, T. E. (2003). Parsing reward. Trends Neurosci. 26, 507–513.
Berridge, K. C., and Aldridge, J. W. (2008). Decision utility, the brain and pursuit of hedonic goals. Soc. Cogn. 26, 621–646.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Happiness, flow, and human economic equality. Am. Psychol. 55, 1163–1164.
Glasser, W. (1990). The quality school: Managing students without coercion. Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
Kim, S. I. (2013). Neuroscientific model of motivational process. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(98), 2. Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2009). Towards a functional neuroanatomy of pleasure and happiness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(11), 479–487. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.08.006
Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am. Psychol. 55, 68–78
Smith, K. S., & Berridge, K. C. (2007). Opioid limbic circuit for reward: interaction between hedonic hotspots of nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(7), 1594-1605.
Turban, D. B., & Yan, W. (2016). Relationship of eudaimonia and hedonia with work outcomes. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 31(6), 1006-1020.