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Dr Raj Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist


When we go to the movies or read books of inspirational true stories of survival against the odds or overcoming obstacles – we find these accounts uplifting – but could they also help us in the motivational stakes?


Research by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Lesley Sylvan of the University of Southern California and Harvard University leads these two neuroscientists to suggest that admiring others, and being inspired by them, could be a key to motivating us.


Their study published in the journal Contemporary Education Psychology, argues that admiration for another person’s virtue stimulates a desire to be virtuous ourselves, and encourages us to activities where we have to overcome odds, which would normally otherwise defeat us.


The problem however is often if we suffer from low self-esteem, or feel life has been unfair to us, we tend to view others who are achieving at something we ourselves are struggling with – like losing weight or passing an exam – with envy, and we tend to denigrate their achievements. We often feel they have unfair advantages over us.


This acts to prevent us deriving the necessary motivational impetus we might otherwise gain from admiring the achievements of others and being inspired by their ‘virtue’. Virtue itself is an interesting concept given the ancient Greeks were preoccupied with what it was to lead the virtuous life, whereas to today we seem more bothered with competing with our neighbours and getting ahead, rather than being ourselves the source of inspiration to others.


In their study, entitled ‘Admiration for Virtue: Neuroscientific perspectives on a motivating emotion’ these researchers started by wondering if admiration for others virtuous behaviour was a somewhat abstract emotion, and would therefore not have the power to galvanise the kind of basic physiology we often see stoked up in, for example, a fight or flight scenario. In ‘fight or flight’ strong emotions – most often terror – get our heart pumping and other systems are bought on line to get us to perhaps the most highly motivated state there is – to defend or run in order to save our lives.


This research started with a question – if the emotion of admiration for virtue could be induced experimentally in the laboratory, would the neuroscientists also see the activation

of similar ‘fight or flight’ systems in the brain and brain stem that maintain basic

survival and prepare the body for action? These would include such powerful systems as those that modulate heart rate, blood pressure and hormones.


In their study they put subjects inside a brain scanner which would monitor how brain activity responds to true stories of enormous courage and overcoming adversity (designed to provoke admiration for virtue) and they also measured heart and respiration rate changes.


For example, in one true story used in the study, a young blind German woman, despite all odds, learns fluent Tibetan language by ear, invents a computerized Tibetan Braille system to translate texts, and travels into the mountains of Tibet to open a school for blind children, to which she dedicates her life.


The researchers were particularly interested in what changes might occur in particular parts of the brain we already know are associated with strong emotion and therefore theoretically powerful motivation. For example, a brain region referred to as the ‘anterior

insula’, we know ‘feels’ the inside of the body. For example allowing us to experience a stomach ache or a racing heart beat. This part of the brain has also been associated with the process of feeling emotion-related transformations in the body, such as the ‘‘punched in the gut feeling” associated with learning bad news, or sense of revulsion associated with unfair decisions.


The study found that activation in the anterior insular cortex, involved in feeling these bodily changes began on average 4–6 seconds later in the emotion process on hearing admirable stories of virtue and was subsequently sustained. In contrast, activation in this area during less complex emotions unrelated to meaningful motivation, like

empathy for another person’s injured leg, happened almost immediately and died down relatively quickly, on average after a few seconds.


What this study suggests is that admiration for virtue in others could be an underestimated powerful emotion. It could therefore could be harnessed to help motivate us to achieve difficult tasks requiring sustained tenacity, such as losing weight or passing arduous exams.


The problem is that often times if we take the example of losing weight we feel negative emotions such as envy and resentment towards those who are fitter and look better than us rather then using these examples to motivate us by focusing on admiration for the virtue being demonstrated.


This kind of research suggests we should look around us more often and try to better and more clearly see the virtue in those we meet or see and which might therefore be harnessed as examples that could motivate us.


If we ignore admiration for virtue, we are neglecting a key motivational strategy that could enhance our lives.




Admiration for virtue: Neuroscientific perspectives on a motivating emotion
Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 35, Issue 2, April 2010, Pages 110-115
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Lesley Sylvan





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