If you often struggle to get yourself motivated - or you have friends who seem stuck in a permanent state of apathy - new research might help to explain your slacker tendencies. Scientists have discovered a collection of inefficient connections in certain parts of the brain, and these weak links could be making things more difficult for some of us to rouse ourselves into action.
The researchers gave questionnaires to 40 young people to determine their general level of motivation. They were then asked to work through a simple game while undergoing an MRI scan to monitor brain activity. The game involved a series of offers that required varying levels of effort to respond to, that the participants could choose to accept or refuse.
Not surprisingly, offers that required low levels of effort were more likely to be accepted, but the team noticed something unusual: in the premotor cortex region of the brain, activity was higher rather than lower in those apparently 'apathetic' people who struggled to make decisions and accept the 'high-effort' offers. This suggests that inefficient processes within the brain rather than a lack of brain activity is behind our apathetic tendencies.
"We expected to see less activity because [the more apathetic volunteers] were less likely to accept effortful choices but we found the opposite," explained one of the team, neurologist Masud Husain from the University of Oxford in the UK. "We thought that this might be because their brain structure is less efficient, so it's more of an effort for apathetic people to turn decisions into actions."
"Using our brain scanning techniques we found that connections in the front part of the brains of apathetic people are less effective," he added. "The brain uses around a fifth of the energy you're burning each day. If it takes more energy to plan an action, it becomes more costly for apathetic people to make actions. Their brains have to make more effort."
The research goes beyond finding excuses for us to lie in bed all day: the team is hoping that the new information will help in the treatment of strokes and Alzheimer's disease, where sufferers often lack the mental strength to do something, even though they might have the physical capability.
While they point out that this isn't an explanation for all kinds of apathy in everyone affected by it, the research could provide biological clues as to why some apparently healthy people become so demotivated - just as brain structure could also be to blame for an inability to turn up on time. And the next time you're tempted to label other people lazy, think twice: their brains might be working much harder than yours is.