Our Brain’s Willpower Hub & How To Activate It Through Exercise and Micro-Sucks
🤸♀️ Stretch 58
Huberman strikes again.* 🤯
I listened to Huberman Lab’s podcast episode on how to increase your willpower and tenacity.
I’ll immediately reveal the mind-stretching-insights, and then use the rest of the newsletter to go into more detail. (Next week I’ll focus more on how we can apply this information, with practical examples and techniques!)
Okay, so here’s what made my brain BUZZ:
Extensive research has shown that there’s a particular brain area responsible for generating willpower and tenacity.
We all have the ability to build up the size and activity of this brain area through exercise and “micro-sucks.”
This sets in motion this positive feedback loop where showing willpower in one area of your life (whether it’s cognitive, emotional or physical) will benefit you in all other areas that require willpower.
If you’ve ever felt like you lack willpower and tenacity (me!), this knowledge is absolute gold. A) you understand that willpower is not fixed. B) you can come up with playful ways to improve your willpower.
*My first Huberman-induced paradigm shift: the concept of neuroplasticity and the importance of frustration when learning a new skill.
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
Get familiar with your aMCC. Your brain’s hub for tenacity and willpower.
Exercise and movement. A proven way to increase the volume and activity of aMCC—with one critical caveat!
Micro-sucks. Use small, trivial moments to further strengthen your willpower.
🧠 The aMCC: YOUR BRAIN’S TENACITY & WILLPOWER HUB
Before we jump in, a quick definition so we’re on the same page:
Tenacity is the willingness to persist under pressure and resistance of various kinds
Willpower relates to both the motivation to undertake certain actions and the motivation to resist certain things
I had already written about how willpower is not just a psychological game. It’s physiological—rooted in the nervous system.
In the podcast episode, Huberman dissects willpower and tenacity from a neurological angle and describes them as “a reflection and expression of a neural circuit function.”
Meaning: willpower and tenacity are generated in the brain… but not just anywhere in the brain.
Based on hundreds of quality peer-reviewed studies in humans, scientists have been able to locate a single brain area responsible for generating feelings of tenacity and willpower.
Meet your anterior mid-cingulate cortex, or aMCC
Imagine the aMCC as your brain's command room, where decisions to push forward or pull back are made.
You can see the aMCC (in the orange belt in the image) has a very central location in your brain, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s in constant interaction with other brain areas, receiving and sending information. For example, the aMCC communicates with the amygdala to regulate emotional responses, improving our ability to persist in challenging tasks.
Based on all the incoming information, the aMCC will generate a sense within us that we’re either going to move forward toward a particular action, or we’re going to resist.
And the word ‘sense’ is important here.
In the episode, Huberman describes a 2013 experiment where the researchers gave tiny electric zaps to just the aMCC of the research subject’s brain, to see how they would feel and act.
When they did this, the subject would describe a feeling of anticipated challenge and a strong desire and motivation to overcome it. Also, their bodies reacted in certain ways automatically, like when you get nervous or excited and your heart beats faster. The moment the researchers stopped activating the brain region, those feelings would go away.
From this, the researchers concluded that activation of the aMCC plays a huge role in helping us take action or resist, and to persist despite challenges—which is exactly what willpower and tenacity are all about.
High plasticity & a positive feedback loop
Okay, so the first piece of good news is: we all have this brain area.
The second piece of good news is: this brain area is highly subject to plasticity. We can increase the activity and size of the aMCC through engaging in two types of behaviours:
Doing something we don’t want to do (move)
Not doing something we want to do (resist)
And once you start tapping into this brain area, you set in motion a positive feedback loop:
Deliberately do something challenging (either moving or resisting) → Activate the aMCC → Grow size of aMCC over time → The easier it becomes to engage the aMCC → The more willpower and tenacity you can show in all other areas of your life.
Expressing willpower leads to more willpower.
🏃♀️ INCREASE VOLUME & ACTIVITY THROUGH EXERCISE AND MOVEMENT
Okay, now the question is: how can we tap into the aMCC?
Huberman explains that physical movement activates the aMCC, especially when there’s a level of resistance and we have to push ourselves to move.
He describes a study involving participants aged 60-79, comparing the effects of cardiovascular exercise (like running and cycling) with the effects of stretching on brain health. Both groups exercised for an hour, three times a week, over six months.
Brain scans before and after the study showed that the aMCC was the primary location in which the maintenance, and in some cases increase, of brain volume was observed. (Keep in mind this is an age group where brain area volumes are typically declining!) They also observed a maintenance or increase in “white matter tracts”—the communication routes allowing information to go in and out of the aMCC.
There was no comparable increase in the volume of the aMCC in the stretching group.
Here’s how the researchers interpreted the findings:
The cardiovascular group had to put in extra effort to exercise, like getting dressed, going outside (rain or shine), staying motivated while running, etc. In contrast, easier activities like stretching didn’t require as much motivation and didn’t get the heart elevated as much.
The research concluded that our ability to engage the aMCC and to build up its volume and increase its activity depends on one critical feature: resistance.
There needs to be a degree of friction—a lack of reflexive desire to engage in the movement.
For example, if you’re already running several times per week and it takes zero effort from you (first of all, who are you?!), then it won’t lead to much aMCC activation.
You’d need to pick something where you need to push yourself. Of course, you need to enjoy the activity to some extent because otherwise you won’t be able to do it consistently, but you need to have to push and encourage yourself.
That’s definitely the case for me with running. I feel on top of the world once I’m out there, but it takes effort and lots of self-talk to get dressed and go. But now that I know that this resistance is a good thing and is helping me strengthen this brain area, I don’t mind it as much. As I’m putting on my running shoes, I imagine my aMCC lighting up and buzzing with activity, and that’s giving me that little extra push I need. 😉
BUILD MICRO-SUCKS INTO YOUR DAY
There are other opportunities to engage the aMCC that don’t involve exercise, and you can easily incorporate into your day-to-day:
Basically anything where you catch yourself thinking “Ugh I don’t feel like doing it” but you know it’s something you should really do…
Not only will Future You be happy, but over time, you’re strengthening this brain structure.
A couple of micro-sucks I tried this week:
5 minutes of breathwork before the next meeting, resisting the urge to grab my phone
5 minutes of stretching after a run, resisting the urge to go up and jump into the shower
Doing the dishes before going to bed, resisting the urge to say “I’ll just do it in the morning.”
So keep in mind:
Hard challenges and tasks activate the aMCC. Easy, habitual tasks don’t.
You have to pick something that is either physically, emotionally or cognitively hard. (Not damaging! Just hard.)