Motivated Brain Plasticity: the 3MT experience

The "3 Minute Thesis competition" (3MT) is based on a concept developed by the University of Queensland (Australia), which quickly spread across Australia and New Zealand, and has just gone global.  This year, the International Doctoral School of the University of Granada offered for the first time the chance to take part in this international competition in collaboration with University members of the Coimbra Group.

The rules of the competition are very strict: participants have to present the main concept and results of their thesis project in less than 3 minutes only with the support of a single static slide.

I decided to take part in the competition and, although I was a bit sceptic at the beginning, I gained much more than what I expected. I received very interesting and practical courses on communication skills and English speech proficiency during the formative phases. I meet peers that have become a multidisciplinary group of friends to such an enjoyable experience. I finally got the second prize of the jury, although being able to achieve such a personal challenge has become much more satisfying that the prize itself.

In my presentation, I tried to summarize the basic concept of my thesis project, but emphasizing a result that I have been observing in different of my recent experiments.

A key concept of my research work is brain plasticity. This is the property of our brain to change its function and its structure as a result of our experience. In this sense, because our brain is plastic, we can change it and we can train it to make it work better.

Research on cognitive and brain training is a very current issue nowadays. And actually, not all the scientific community is in favor of the fact that brain functioning can be improved.

However, many studies have already demonstrated that if we train a cognitive function (such as working memory or attention) we can improve not only the same function we train but also different but related functions, this is: training improvement can transfer to trained (working memory or attention) and to non trained tasks (such as reading comprehension or cognitive control).

However, when referred to the benefits of cognitive training, many factors can modulate this potential improvements. Some of these factors are: 1) the type of control group to compare (a no training group – passive control – could lead us to observe a benefit driven just by a practice effect); 2) the number, duration and length of training sessions distribution; 3) individual differences in the participant’s baseline level; 4) motivation.

Cognitive training gains not only depend on whether you trained or not, but it’s also a question of being motivated. What I mean, is that the ability to change our brain depends on whether or not we really want to make that change in our brain. Actually, It depends on whether or not we are motivated enough to improve.

In my thesis, I am developing cognitive training programs with children, as well as with young and older adults. We are measuring the capacity to control memories and thoughts and we are analyzing what changes happen in the brain after completing the cognitive training programs. In the studies I have carried out until the date, I have found this essential effect of motivation as modulator of cognitive training improvement:

In children with reading difficulties, those who have a greater level of motivation are able to achieve higher level of difficulty during working memory training. Also in younger adults (college students), the more motivated they are, the further they get in challenging activities of working memory and inhibitory control training – whether motivation is not relevant when you perform easy and non-demanding training tasks. And finally, also motivation is important for older adults. Older adults that perceived the training tasks as more interesting and found themselves as more competent, reached higher levels of improvement during executive control training.

In addition to our baseline level, motivation seems to be a key factor in getting better. And in fact, it could even determine how much we can change our brain.

Here’s my presentation in the 3MT competition.