Summary: People show a decrease in motivation to exert effort or work when feeling fatigued. Motivation can be restored if people are allowed a short rest, however for those with long-term fatigue, motivation does not improve following a short-term period of rest.

Source: University of Birmingham

How do we decide whether or not an activity which requires work is ‘worth the effort’? Researchers at the University of Birmingham & University of Oxford have shown that the willingness to work is not static, and depends upon the fluctuating rhythms of fatigue.

Fatigue – the feeling of exhaustion from doing effortful tasks – is something we all experience daily. It makes us lose motivation and want to take a break. Although scientists understand the mechanisms the brain uses to decide whether a given task is worth the effort, the influence of fatigue on this process is not yet well understood.

The research team conducted a study to investigate the impact of fatigue on a person’s decision to exert effort. They found that people were less likely to work and exert effort – even for a reward – if they were fatigued. The results are published in Nature Communications.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that there were two different types of fatigue that were detected in distinct parts of the brain. In the first, fatigue is experienced as a short-term feeling, which can be overcome after a short rest. Over time, however, a second, longer term feeling builds up, stops people from wanting to work, and doesn’t go away with short rests.

“We found that people’s willingness to exert effort fluctuated moment by moment, but gradually declined as they repeated a task over time,” says Tanja Müller, first author of the study, based at the University of Oxford. “Such changes in the motivation to work seem to be related to fatigue – and sometimes make us decide not to persist.”

The team tested 36 young, healthy people on a computer-based task, where they were asked to exert physical effort to obtain differing amounts of monetary rewards. The participants completed more than 200 trials and in each, they were asked if they would prefer to ‘work’ – which involved squeezing a grip force device – and gain the higher rewards offered, or to rest and only earn a small reward.

The team built a mathematical model to predict how much fatigue a person would be feeling at any point in the experiment, and how much that fatigue was influencing their decisions of whether to work or rest.

While performing the task, the participants also underwent an MRI scan, which enabled the researchers to look for activity in the brain that matched the predictions of the model.

They found areas of the brain’s frontal cortex had activity that fluctuated in line with the predictions, while an area called the ventral striatum signalled how much fatigue was influencing people’s motivation to keep working.

“This work provides new ways of studying and understanding fatigue, its effects on the brain, and on why it can change some people’s motivation more than others” says Dr Matthew Apps, senior author of the study, based at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health. “This helps begin to get to grips with something that affects many patients lives, as well as people while at work, school, and even elite athletes.

The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health, Institute for Mental Health and School of Psychology all contributed to this research project.

About this psychology research news

Source: University of Birmingham
Contact: Craig Jones – University of Birmingham
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Neural and computational mechanisms of momentary fatigue and persistence in effort-based choice” by Tanja Müller, Miriam C. Klein-Flügge, Sanjay G. Manohar, Masud Husain & Matthew A. J. Apps. Nature Communications

Neural and computational mechanisms of momentary fatigue and persistence in effort-based choice

From a gym workout, to deciding whether to persevere at work, many activities require us to persist in deciding that rewards are ‘worth the effort’ even as we become fatigued. However, studies examining effort-based decisions typically assume that the willingness to work is static.

Here, we use computational modelling on two effort-based tasks, one behavioural and one during fMRI. We show that two hidden states of fatigue fluctuate on a moment-to-moment basis on different timescales but both reduce the willingness to exert effort for reward.

The value of one state increases after effort but is ‘recoverable’ by rests, whereas a second ‘unrecoverable’ state gradually increases with work. The BOLD response in separate medial and lateral frontal sub-regions covaried with these states when making effort-based decisions, while a distinct fronto-striatal system integrated fatigue with value.

These results provide a computational framework for understanding the brain mechanisms of persistence and momentary fatigue.

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