How to Increase Your Willpower & Tenacity | Huberman Lab Podcast

How to Increase Your Willpower & Tenacity | Huberman Lab Podcast

Tenacity & Willpower (00:00:00)

  • The podcast discusses the psychology and neuroscience of tenacity and willpower.
  • Tenacity is the willingness to persist under pressure and resistance of different kinds while willpower has to do with both the motivation to carry out certain actions and the motivation to resist certain things.
  • There exists a brain structure that harnesses and builds on the layers of information from within and outside of you to foster or improve tenacity and willpower.
  • The podcast gives research-supported tools to boost one's level of tenacity and willpower for any given circumstance.

Tenacity & Willpower vs. Habit Execution; Apathy, Depression & Motivation (00:03:49)

  • Tenacity and willpower are different from habit execution; habit execution requires less willpower as it tends to be a set of learned established behaviors.
  • Tenacity and willpower require effort and energy to intervene in one's default neural processes such as habits or particular patterns of thinking.
  • Having too much tenacity and willpower can be problematic for one's mental and physical health. However, for most people, enhancing tenacity and willpower can be beneficial.
  • Willpower (also known as tenacity, grit, or persistence) is different from habit execution and lies on a continuum, with apathy and depression on one end and grit, persistence, tenacity, and willpower on the other end.
  • Motivation is the engine that allows one to move along this continuum, but itself is distinct from the concepts of tenacity, willpower, apathy, or depression.
  • The podcast explains specific neural mechanisms to engage and enhance levels of tenacity and willpower.

Ego Depletion & Willpower as a Limited Resource; Controversy (00:10:40)

  • The study of willpower, tenacity, and how these traits can be maintained or depleted under certain conditions have been subjects of psychological research for many years. Some psychologists base their research on the concept that willpower is a finite resource, which can be drained by the exertion of decision-making or resisting certain behaviors.
  • Roy Baumeister and his colleagues put this theory of willpower depletion into formal study about 25 years ago, introducing the term 'ego depletion' to describe the process of willpower depletion and recovery. This term specifically refers to the concept of self and the challenges one faces externally, and the effort it takes to connect these two aspects.
  • Despite the term's use, it does not strictly adhere to common understandings of 'ego'. It is merely an operating principle within psychology, much like other psychological terms which may be misinterpreted by general audiences.
  • The concept of ego depletion and finite willpower being contested in recent times has sparked debates within the psychological research community. This is why current discussions aim to present both sides of this contested theory, displaying the original Baumeister research as well as conflicting research from scholars like Carol Dweck.
  • By exploring both theories, the aim is to develop a better understanding of willpower and tenacity, and recognize that individual beliefs about these traits play a huge role in how they are manifested.
  • Exploring this controversy and understanding both sides of the argument is crucial in order to appreciate the underlying neural mechanisms for tenacity and willpower, and to make the most out of tools and protocols for enhancing these traits.
  • Generally, willpower has two sides: wanting to engage in a behavior but lacking the motivation to do so, and resisting engaging in a behavior or thought. These exercises of willpower feel like tenacity to most people.
  • While motivational slogans like "just do it" might work for some, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. Understanding the factors that influence willpower and tenacity can equip individuals with more effective strategies for instigating or resisting behaviors.

Tool: Autonomic Function, Tenacity & Willpower; Sleep & Stress (00:19:14)

  • Tenacity and willpower are influenced by autonomic function, which greatly impacts the probability of undertaking or refraining from certain actions.
  • The autonomic function consists of two main components, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic system is associated with states of alertness and activity, while the parasympathetic system is linked to rest and relaxation.
  • Both systems are continuously at play, influencing our state of alertness or sleepiness, based on their balance at any given time.
  • The capacity to express willpower and tenacity depends on our current autonomic function, making them susceptible to our physical and emotional states.
  • Ensuring sufficient and quality sleep consistently makes it easier to express willpower and tenacity. Conversely, lack of quality sleep reduces our capacity to exhibit these traits.
  • Physical pain, emotional distress, distractions or sleep deprivation can diminish our ability to draw on tenacity and willpower.
  • The balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is crucial for generating optimal tenacity and willpower, although there currently isn't a simple metric for measuring autonomic function balance.
  • Foundational elements like sleep and stress need to be managed effectively to ensure the successful application of any tools or protocols aimed at enhancing tenacity and willpower.
  • The 'Huberman Lab' offers a zero cost toolkit for sleep regulation and addressing stress levels, contributing directly to our autonomic function and subsequently our ability to exercise tenacity and willpower.

Willpower as a Limited Resource (Theory)

  • A key study by Meister and colleagues involved subjects undertaking tasks requiring varying levels of mental effort or willpower, such as resisting the temptation to eat cookies or radishes.
  • The experiment aimed to examine the resistance capacity, assumed to be willpower, of subjects when facing difficult tasks.
  • The results indicated that subjects who had to resist more tempting items, such as cookies, were less persistent when asked to solve an impossible puzzle afterwards.
  • Conversely, subjects required to resist less attractive items, like radishes, persisted longer in the puzzle-solving task.
  • The study therefore concluded that willpower is a limited resource, which can be depleted by engaging in or resisting hard tasks.

Willpower & Glucose, Brain Energetics

  • Following the above study, a new hypothesis was suggested: willpower is limited due to the availability of brain glucose.
  • Given that the brain requires a lot of glucose (a vital fuel source for neurons), a set of experiments was carried out to examine the impact of glucose availability on willpower.
  • These involved having subjects perform challenging tasks, then providing some with a glucose beverage before engaging in another challenging task.
  • Results found that subjects given the glucose drink had consistently maintained, and sometimes even increased, levels of willpower from task to task.
  • Thus, the studies proposed that maintaining stable or elevated glucose levels throughout the day could potentially enhance willpower and tenacity.
  • However, these findings were considered controversial due a dispute surrounding the conclusion that willpower as a limited resource depends on physiological glucose availability.

Beliefs about Willpower & Glucose; Multiple Challenges (00:42:44)

  • Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol D conducted a study in 2013 to test the idea that willpower is a limited resource and is linked to glucose levels in the brain.
  • The experiment comprised of two difficult tasks involving willpower; the first task was crossing out specific letters in a passage, followed by the "Stroop Task". The Stroop Task involves reading the colors of word prints, which becomes more complex under time pressure and potential rewards or penalties.
  • This study used a glucose-rich drink and an artificially sweetened drink (with no glucose) to examine whether ingesting glucose can improve performance on the challenging tasks involving willpower.
  • The findings of the study were that in fact, ingesting glucose can enhance ability to engage in challenging willpower tasks.
  • However, the degree to which glucose can improve performance was dependent on whether the subjects believed that willpower was a limited resource and whether they believed that glucose is the resource associated with willpower.
  • The title of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is 'Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control'.
  • The outcomes of the study suggest that one's belief about willpower and its source can determine how they perform in challenging tasks requiring willpower.
  • If subjects believed that willpower was not limited and not linked to blood glucose, they could engage in one challenging task after another without any decrease in performance.
  • The results led to debates and subsequent experiments from Bow Meister and others, producing both supporting and opposing findings regarding willpower as a limited resource and its link to blood glucose.
  • There's a conclusion that the availability of glucose during and between tasks and taking account of internal feelings relative to external expectations can enhance the capacity to engage in challenging tasks requiring willpower, particularly in real-world scenarios with multiple challenging situations.
  • However, the ultimate tools and protocols proven to enhance willpower and tenacity seem to work regardless of whether one falls in the camp that believes in willpower as a limited glucose-linked resource, or not.

Willpower Brain ‘Hub’; Anorexia Nervosa, Super-Agers (00:54:01)

  • Tenacity and willpower are argued to have a unified source in a specific set of brain areas.
  • The anterior mid singulate cortex is identified as the primary brain area responsible for willpower and tenacity.
  • The anterior mid singulate cortex is subject to plasticity and can be influenced by specific actions and mindsets. Its activity and size can be increased to enhance willpower.
  • Several studies point to the anterior mid singulate cortex as crucial to tenacity and willpower. Evidence comes from direct neural imaging, lesion-based findings, trained observations, and volume changes over the course of training or activities.
  • This brain region receives robust inputs from the autonomic nervous system, reward systems of the brain, and other brain areas for context and strategy setting.
  • Research shows that the anterior mid singulate cortex shows elevated activity in hard tasks versus easy tasks. High achieving individuals also have higher activity in the anterior mid singulate cortex.
  • People with disrupted anterior mid singulate cortical function exhibit increased apathy, depression, and reduced levels of tenacity.
  • Successful dieters and highly motivated individuals show elevated activity in this area while those struggling with obesity and depression have diminished activity.
  • Anorexia Nervosa, a condition associated with unhealthy levels of dieting and food aversion, also presents heightened activity in the anterior mid singulate cortex.
  • "Super-agers", people maintaining youthful cognition into old age, particularly centenarians, maintain a significantly larger anterior mid singulate cortex volume compared to their age matched peers.

Anterior Midcingulate Cortex & Brain/Body Communication (01:07:15)

  • Tenacity and willpower are expressions of either "I absolutely will" or "I absolutely won't," and are governed by complex brain mechanisms, not just a simple on-off switch. It's important to understand these aspects of willpower as it shapes our behaviors and choices.
  • The anterior midcingulate cortex (AMC), a key brain area, plays an important role in generating tenacity and willpower. It can't function as a simple switch; it needs to adapt to different contexts, needs, ambitions, conditions, and times.
  • The AMC is equipped to understand what's rewarding or non-rewarding in the context of what we're trying to achieve, beyond just immediate gratification.
  • Various structural and neuroimaging studies have explored the AMC's activity, size, and interconnectedness to other brain areas and systems, and how it influences major conditions such as depression, obesity, anorexia, and high-performance levels in successful dieters, students, athletes, etc.
  • Detailed brain studies, using methods like diffusion tensor imaging, have shown that the AMC communicates with numerous brain areas and body systems. These include autonomic centers controlling heart rate and respiration, the immune system, the endocrine system regulating hormones, pre-motor centers for behavior, and reward pathways for dopamine release.
  • The AMC plays a crucial role in modulating our sense of tenacity and willpower by receiving and responding to inputs about sleep needs, pain, emotional comfort or discomfort, internal body functions (interoception), and external environment (exteroception).
  • Understanding the complex role and network of the AMC provides a logical basis for data on brain-related conditions like depression, anxiety, high performance, and anorexia.

Allostasis, Anterior Midcingulate Cortex Function (01:14:54)

  • The Anterior Midcingulate Cortex (aMCC) plays a pivotal role in fostering tenacity and willpower, based on pioneering research led by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett.
  • This part of the brain stimulates feelings of tenacity and willpower when activated, as discovered in a study by Stanford researcher Joe Parvizi, whereby participants, under precision stimulation of different brain areas, felt a psychological pressure and a need to 'push back.'
  • It solely was the stimulation of the aMCC that brought about these feelings, suggestive of a psychological challenge creating a need to marshal resources.
  • The aMCC serves as a hub that assimilates information from various brain areas to generate a particular sense within us that we need to resist or move in some particular way.
  • One key concept that the aMCC employs is allostasis; a system of allocating resources to specific functions depending on challenges and motivational goals.
  • With the aMCC controlling how much energy different brain and body areas should receive based on the situational context, it perfectly aligns with the concept and requirements of regulating tenacity and willpower.
  • This aspect of brain function highlights that even those with substantial tenacity and willpower must fluctuate between fully harnessing these traits and falling back into habitual behaviors, as consistently leaning into tenacity and willpower is not always advantageous.

Anterior Mid-Cingulate Cortex (aMCC), Difficult Tasks & Neuroplasticity (01:25:19)

  • The aMCC is not merely a regulator of energy and activation distribution to different brain areas but also a receiver of input from the brain and body.
  • Movements and activities, particularly challenging tasks, enhance the activation of the aMCC.
  • The aMCC demonstrates a high capacity for synaptic plasticity, meaning connections in the brain are capable of growing and strengthening.
  • The practice of tenacity and willpower activation can therefore 'exercise' the aMCC, encouraging its growth and increasing its capacity to handle challenging contexts in other areas of life.
  • Due to its generic mechanism for generating tenacity and willpower, the aMCC provides a very functional tool for managing the challenges that we face across various aspects of life.

Tool: Novel Physical Exercise & Brain; Cognitive Exercise (01:29:30)

  • The anterior mid singulate cortex is a crucial brain region for generating tenacity and willpower.
  • A 2006 study revealed that cardiovascular exercise training can retain or increase brain volume, especially in the anterior mid singulate cortex, which generally decreases with age.
  • The study involved participants aged 60 to 79 years divided into two groups - one group performed cardiovascular exercise while the other conducted more stretching and calisthenics type exercise, an hour three times per week.
  • The method engaged by the cardiovascular training group maintained, and in some cases increased, the volume of the anterior mid singulate cortex.
  • The exercise connected the two sides of the brain, improving communication between the two.
  • The challenge of the cardio workout probably engaged the anterior mid singulate cortex, increasing its volume and activity.
  • It implies that activities that get the heart rate elevated could stimulate the brain region associated with tenacity and willpower.
  • The takeaway from the study is that physical exercise, especially the kind that challenges the individual, should be carried out to improve willpower and tenacity.
  • Increased activity in the anterior mid singulate cortex can be transferred to various aspects of life, including academics, professional responsibilities, or relationships.
  • However, activating this brain region requires engaging in something challenging, something that is not already a habit or an easy task.

Tool: “Micro-sucks”, Increase Tenacity/Willpower (01:43:43)

  • Engaging in activities that get you out of your comfort zone, dubbed as "micro-sucks," can help build up tenacity and willpower.
  • Activities such as extra sets of exercise, restraining mobile phone use during a workout, and delaying mealtime can challenge your willpower.
  • Performing tasks against one’s immediate desires activates the anterior mid-singulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with tenacity and willpower.
  • It's essential to find a balance between building willpower via "micro-sucks" and maintaining psychological, emotional, and physical health

Impossible Tasks, Super-Agers & Learning, Will to Live (01:50:58)

  • Embracing challenging tasks, such as cold plunges or new learning experiences, can provide opportunities to build tenacity.
  • Encountering unsolvable problems or endless tasks can enhance willpower and tenacity.
  • Super agers, individuals with cognitive function levels of much younger people, are continually engaged in challenging activities which could link tenacity, willpower and notion of 'will to live.'
  • Regularly stimulating the anterior mid-singulate cortex, by challenging oneself with physically and mentally tough tasks, can reinforce circuits related to tenacity and willpower.
  • Increasing your tenacity and willpower can be achieved by consciously activating the anterior mid-singulate cortex, a hub in the brain associated with resisting engagement in certain behaviors or doing unwelcomed tasks.

Tool: Rewards & Improving Tenacity/Willpower (01:57:23)

  • Tenacity and willpower can be increased with practice, and the sense of relief one feels after surviving a stressful experience can act as a reinforcement.
  • A peer-reviewed study in Neuron showed that rewarding oneself after coping with a stressful period could increase one's capacity to handle future stress.
  • This doesn't suggest rewarding oneself constantly, but at random intervals after overcoming particularly challenging circumstances in a healthy and safe way.
  • Self-reward could further reinforce the behavior of increasing tenacity and willpower.

Tenacity & Willpower Recap (02:01:07)

  • The ability of tenacity and willpower to handle stress is influenced by factors such as sleep deprivation, pain, emotional distress, and distractions which are linked to autonomic functions that need sufficient care, like getting enough sleep, eating properly, and maintaining social connections.
  • The anterior mid-singulate cortex in the brain is a hub that generates tenacity and willpower and it can be developed when we choose to do things we are least likely to do or resist things we are most likely to do.
  • If continuously engaged, the anterior mid-singulate cortex can increase our capacity to handle stress and maintain willpower in the future.
  • Engaging in challenging physical activities, learning new things can help exercise the anterior mid-singulate cortex and develop willpower.
  • It's crucial to safely address challenges in order to build up tenacity and willpower without causing physical or psychological harm.
  • The practice of developing tenacity and willpower not only helps overcome obstacles but also helps enrich life enjoyment and might even extend life.

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