Helping Young People Achieve Their Goals

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New insights from neuroscience suggest that one simple activity can help children and youth increase the strength of the part of their brain that allows them to stay on-track and focused on their goals, even in the face of distractions. 

Being a mellow monkey to tame the not-quite-monkey mind

While our modern world is full of distractions that our primate ancestors never encountered in the wild, the secret to boosting our children’s ability to stay on-track with their goals may lie in how a tiny region in the front of our brains evolved differently from monkeys hundreds of thousands of years ago – the frontopolar cortex[1].

The frontopolar cortex:

Neuroscience says: Exercising at a mild intensity[4] for as little as 10 minutes has been shown to strengthen activity in the frontopolar cortex[3], leading to enhanced functioning.  Based on our knowledge of the role of the frontopolar cortex, this means that as little as ten minutes of walking, light cycling, or easy swimming could help us and our children manage multiple goals more efficiently and stay motivated in the face of challenges.

Taking it further: 

 

You can use the BORG Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale to ensure you are exercising at the right intensity. You should feel comfortable and not out of breath.

Mild exercise, which is what we are aiming for here, should fall between 8-11 on this scale. Click the link below for a guide. 

In this exercise, used to test cognitive functioning, participants time how long it takes to read two sets of words aloud. In traditional variations, the participant has to say the name of the colour the text is written in – not what the word spells. Click "more" to try it out yourself, and just try not to laugh as you find yourself hopelessly tongue tied! 

In theory, the difference between the time it takes to say the first and second set of words should decrease after 10 minutes of mild exercise, showing improved cognitive function. Keep in mind that this may not always the case in real life.

The ability to store an in-progress task in a pending state – and then return to it – is referred to as “cognitive branching,” and is an integral part of goal-directed behavior. 

While it may feel nearly effortless to us, monkeys can’t do it – which is one reason why scientists think that the frontopolar cortex may be to thank for our superior goal-management skills!

A 2018 Swiss study found that using transcranial brain stimulation to enhance activation in the frontopolar cortex increased participants’ willingness to perform demanding cognitive or physical tasks in order to receive a reward.

The study tested the role of the frontopolar cortex in deciding if a reward is worth the work needed to achieve it. Reserachers applied transcranial direct current stimulation, a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, to affect excitability of neurons (brain cells) in the frontopolar region. Participants then decided if they were willing to exert a specific level of mental or physical effort in order to receive a monetary reward. The study found that participants who received anodal transcranial stimulation, which is used to enhance brain activity in a region, were more willing to exert effort in cognitive and physical tasks in order to receive a reward than participants receiving no (control) or inhibitory (cathodal) stimulation. From this, the researchers concluded that enhancing (anodal) stimulation of the frontopolar cortex increased motivation towards demanding tasks by counteracting the devaluation of rewards caused by higher effort levels.
 

In a 2012 study conducted in Japan, researchers examined the effect of a single 10-minute mild exercise session on executive function and activity in associated brain regions. They found that this kind of exercise improved cognitive function generally, and increased activity in the frontopolar cortex specifically.

In the study, participants completed a color-word matching Stroop test and a measurement of psychological mood before and after 10 minutes of light cycling (experimental group) or 10 minutes of rest (control group). The researchers measured brain activity using non-invasive function near-infrared spectroscopy, which measures changes in blood flow in the outer layer of the brain (cortex) as an indicator of neural activity in this region.   The study found that 10 minutes of mild exercise increased arousal levels (feelings of alertness) that correlated with increased activity in the frontopolar cortex and dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, and that increased activation in these regions was linked to improved cognitive performace.

The frontopolar cortex is located at the very front of the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for executive functions such as problem solving, comprehension, impulse-control, creativity and perseverance.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.