Have you ever been working hard on something, but no matter what you did you were never achieving your goals? Maybe others encouraged you to keep fighting, researching, or working, but nothing was coming from all your effort. In that moment, you probably felt like quitting.
Well, don’t feel bad about this. New research suggests that this feeling is not simply you being lazy, but a neurological response to failure that you are unable to control. This response even occurs in animals, too, so don’t feel bad about wanting to give up.
Your brain knows when to give up
When animals are confronted with a difficult obstacle, they often will give up in order to conserve energy, whether they intend to use that energy for another attempt, for identifying a different strategy that will help them succeed, or for reevaluating whether their goal is even worth the effort they are putting in.
It turns out that your brain also works to detect failure and make the decision to stop trying to accomplish something, according to a recent study.
The study, published in Cell, was conducted by a research group led by Misha Ahrens at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The researchers studied zebrafish, an organism that also uses this process to make decisions, using virtual reality technology. In order to do this they surrounded them with screens that allowed them to control what the fish saw.
The researchers showed the fish a video that made them think they were swimming backwards, even though they were attempting to swim forward. Eventually, after repeatedly attempting to swim forward, the zebrafish stopped swimming and gave up.
What part of the brain wants you to give up?
The researchers imaged the fish brains to measure the activity of different types of cells. While the central nervous system is largely made up of two types of cells, neurons and non-neuronal cells called glia, glia cells have been overlooked for a long time. Previously it was thought that glia cells were simply a sort of “glue” that only provided support to the central nervous system, but recent studies have shown that glia cells not only have different kinds- astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and microglia- but can perform all different functions within the brain.
The research team found that astrocytes were activated when the zebrafish went into a passive state. Right before the fish gave up swimming, astrocytes in a specific area of the brain lit up.
While the neurons are usually thought to be the main players in the brain, earning credit for the most complex behavioral functions, this research suggests that the astrocytes may be playing the crucial role of gathering information and controlling the part of the brain that decides to give up. Other studies have found that astrocytes also control avoidance behaviors and sleep.
The research team found that the astrocytes weren’t the only cells responding during the process of giving up. The imagery of the zebrafish brain also showed that noradrenergic neurons were activated. These neurons were activated just before the fish gave up swimming, suggesting that these neurons are responsible for detecting failure and sending signals to the astrocytes to send out the “give up” command.
Jennifer Fabiano is an SEO reporter at Ladders.