We tend to look down on apathy, a quality associated with laziness, civic disaffection and moral indifference. But research suggests that such behavior may be less about attitude and more about neural connections. The less impassioned among us, surprisingly, appear to have a lot going on inside their heads.
Neuroscientists at Oxford University performed brain scans on less and more motivated people to explore the biological basis of not giving a shit, and published their findings last year in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
For the study, 40 participants filled out questionnaires that allowed researchers to gauge their levels of motivation. Then, while undergoing fMRI scans, participants played an experimental game in which they were offered various rewards in exchange for exerting some amount of physical effort. In each case, they had to decide whether the reward was worth the effort. As researchers expected, high-reward, low-effort offers were more popular among participants, particularly those inclined towards apathy, than offers requiring more effort.
The brain scan results depicted a different neural scenario than expected. Researchers specifically zeroed in on the pre-motor cortex, an area of the brain that facilitates the choice to take action. So, the pre-motor cortex (as its name suggests) flares up immediately before regions involved in movement do.
Apathetic study participants primarily accepted only low-effort offers in the experimental game. But, when they did accept offers, their pre-motor cortices exhibited more activity than motivated participants accepting the same offer.
“We expected to see less activity because they were less likely to accept effortful choices but we found the opposite,” said study author Masud Husain in a press release.
Why did lazy participants exhibit higher neural activity? Because their brains do more work to achieve the same ends. “We thought that this might be because their brain structure is less efficient,” said Husain, “so it's more of an effort for apathetic people to turn decisions into actions.”
While choosing to do something, apathetic people, according to researchers, expend more brain energy than non-apathetic people; at a neural level, the process of taking action is simply more taxing. So, their lack of motivation isn’t so much a personality flaw as a means of energy conservation.
People with certain brain disorders, such as alzheimer's patients, lack motivation to perform even basic tasks (e.g., taking medication). This research can help demystify what manifests as pathological indifference.
The study sheds new light on the biological basis of what we previously thought of as a voluntary disposition — “care more.” But, the findings don’t give us license to stand back, film crimes (ahem, Seinfeld) and blame our failure to help on our brains. Good samaritan rules still apply. Or, whatever.