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Vikram Chib on Motivation in the Brain


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Vikram Chib on Motivation in the Brain

Interviewed by Paige Bartlett
Vikram Chib on Motivation in the Brain

Vikram Chib is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins Medicine. He studies the neuroscience behind what motivates us and how we make decisions. His lab recently made a discovery that being watched while you do a task can actually push you to do better. You can read more about Chib’s work on his June 18 Reddit Ask Me Anything.

Why is it useful to know the brain activity behind motivation? 

Chib: Our main goal is to understand what’s happening in disease. There are a lot of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders in which disrupted motivation is a problem, such as depression or schizophrenia. If we know how motivation is processed in the healthy brain, and how brain activity gives rise to motivated performance, we can figure out what’s happening when people have deficits in their motivation and what mechanisms we can lean on to intervene and help patients recover motivation. Or in cases where we’re looking at healthy participants who don’t have any problems with their motivation, designing strategies to enhance their motivation. 

What did you find was particularly surprising in your research? 

Chib: What was surprising to us is the way in which money can motivate people and what people are thinking that makes them motivated. We found a while back that your worries of loss are what motivates you. We performed an experiment where we showed people potential gains—for example, on some trials participants had $100 to gain if they successfully performed a task. We initially thought that people would be motivated by the thought of winning $100. But brain activity suggested that rather than them being really hopeful for winning $100, they were worried about losing $100—even though they had never even received it. From these results we realized the fear of loss was what motivated people. It’s a counterintuitive way to think about incentives. 

How do you know from the brain data that they were being motivated by loss? 

Chib: There is an area deep in your brain called the ventral striatum. A lot of people, including us, have done studies demonstrating that when you show somebody a reward, the activity in the ventral striatum increases. The ventral striatum also has decreasing activity for increases in potential loss.  When we showed people $100 to win on the screen, ventral striatal activity increased at first. But then when individuals did the task, the activity in the ventral striatum actually decreased. That looked exactly like processing potential losses. So we did another behavioral test, where we figured out how loss averse people are. The people who were more loss averse reached peak performance at lower incentives, but they also choked under the pressure for higher incentives. 

A lot of this work is in the lab, how applicable do you think it is to everyday scenarios? 

Chib: I think it is applicable. In the lab we create these very well-controlled environments, where we can control how much I’m paying you. Presumably, this is the main thing that’s motivating you. I think these worries of loss are pretty prevalent in our daily lives. Whether they happen on the scale we see in lab, it’s hard to know. But I think it’s a factor. 


What’s the best part of your work? 

Chib: I think the best thing is working with my students. It’s fun to see them learn new things and do research. I love doing the research, but things change when you have your own lab. You have to write grants and get funding, and you don’t get to do as much of the fun stuff like running experiments or analyzing data. But it’s cool to watch my students do the fun stuff and make new discoveries. I really enjoy coming up with new ideas with my students. When we run a new experiment and look at the brain activity, and we realize that we found something new—realizing at that moment you’re the only people who know about that aspect of how the brain works—it’s pretty cool. 

Do you have any advice for people who are looking to start out in this field? 

Chib: Find out what interests you and pursue that, and don’t be so worried about what’s hot and what’s not. But just because you don’t like everything you’re doing now doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually end up finding something that you like more. In graduate school you’re trying to generate a skillset, a toolbox, to answer the questions you’re interested in. Just follow your interests—that’s the most important thing you can do.