Did you know that our brains are hard-wired to seek satisfaction through ever-changing, achievable goals? Setting realistic expectations that work with – not against – your lifestyle is one of the simple ways to help the brain stay motivated and focus on your achievements in 2023. We want to help you thrive through what can be a tough start to the year by sharing wellness tips throughout the coming months to help your mind and body stay happy and healthy.

Here, we break down the science behind goal setting and look at which parts of the brain and body are associated with reaching your targets. By knowing this, you can practice simple exercises and tailor how you approach your resolutions this year. Discover more, below.

The brain’s role in goal setting
When it comes to goal setting, our brains work across four key areas and rely on the release of various neuromodulators and neurotransmitters. The amygdala regulates emotions such as fear, the ventral striatum plays a role in decision-making, the lateral prefrontal cortex is involved with executive function and the orbital prefrontal cortex assesses emotionality and progress toward a goal. Together, these areas allow us to decide how important a goal is, plan how we're going to get there, and keep track of how we’re doing. 1,2 
That’s the brain’s function, but what about the body? The body's perception of space can be divided into two distinct categories; the peri-personal space (the area inside your body and immediate environment) and the extra-personal space (the area outside of your immediate environment). In order to feel motivated and achieve our goals, we must be aware of both spaces. The neural circuits related to your peri-personal space are geared towards satisfaction and reward – and this is how we measure our progress towards achieving our goal. Neural circuitry in the peri-personal space is linked to the release of a number of neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and serotonin. Pursuing things in our extra-personal space relies on the release of dopamine (the motivation molecule) and action – encouraging you to keep pushing toward your target. Working across both spaces means we can assess the progress of a goal, add value to its achievement and process the emotions associated with getting there. By choosing a target that is of real value to our happiness and achieved through clear steps, you’re already halfway there. 3,4,5
[4] Cléry J, Guipponi O, Wardak C, Ben Hamed S. Neuronal bases of peripersonal and extrapersonal spaces, their plasticity and their dynamics: knowns and unknowns. Neuropsychologia. 2015 Apr;70:313-26. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.10.022. Epub 2014 Oct 24. PMID: 25447371.
The importance of dopamine
Neuromodulators are powerful chemicals that affect the transmission of signals between neurons to create a physiological response. Previously, the neuromodulator dopamine has been associated with reward and pleasure, and although recent studies continue to show that it is possible to experience pleasure without the presence of dopamine, when dopamine is not present there’s a lack of motivation to pursue pleasure which has a direct impact on successfully setting and reaching a goal. 6
[6] Cousins MS, Atherton A, Turner L, Salamone JD. Nucleus accumbens dopamine depletions alter relative response allocation in a T-maze cost/benefit task. Behav Brain Res. 1996 Jan;74(1-2):189-97. doi: 10.1016/0166-4328(95)00151-4.


Taking action

So, how can you stay motivated? There are several ways to keep dopamine flowing and to ignite those different areas of the brain and body needed to reach your goal. We’ve summarised a few useful tips you can put into practice to help you centre yourself and refocus, and explained the science behind why they work.

1) Create intention by increasing attention: concentrating your visual attention on one point in the extra-personal space for 30-60 seconds
Vision is a powerful tool in bringing the mind and body into a state of focus. By concentrating your visual attention on one point in your extra personal space (beyond your body and immediate surroundings) for 30-60 seconds, you can bring together the thought of a goal and the execution of it. Vision can influence neural circuitry in the brain through two pathways, one is associated with focusing your eyesight on one point which brings your body into a state of alertness, while the other involves broadening your visual view). Broadening your sight -imagine looking at the horizon - relaxes the neural circuitry leading to a greater sense of relaxation.7

2) Don’t underestimate the power of visualisation: imagine how failure would feel
Whilst positive mantras can be effective and have their place, science has shown that picturing how feel if you didn’t achieve your goal can help give you the extra push needed to get there. Studies have shown that imagining the disappointment you may feel by not reaching each step of your goal can almost double the probability of you doing it. This goes back to how the amygdala in the brain aids goal pursuit. As it governs emotions such as worry or fear, visualising the feeling of failure is an effective way to activate that neural circuitry and get yourself back in the headspace of going for your goal.8

3) Step just outside your comfort zone
The 85% rule for optimal learning states that to be successful, you need to be getting things right 85% of the time. This re-affirms conclusions from studies that show setting goals that are aspirational - but most importantly - achievable are the best way to activate your neural circuitry into a state of readiness. If goals are too easy or too difficult, they do not produce a rise in systolic blood pressure (and the secretion of dopamine) in the same way an achievable goal does, meaning there’s less motivation. Of course, how we perceive the possibility of achieving a goal changes with circumstance, such as being ill or our emotional state, so it’s important to be realistic in updating the goal to meet where we currently are in our lives and our capability at that point. In short, keep your goals just outside of what feels comfortable and update them realistically as you go.9

4) Have a plan.
Studies show that you are more likely to achieve your goal if there is a specific and detailed action plan. Clear communication of a goal can help you modify your short-term behaviour for results, but long-term action is more effective with detailed steps along the way. For example, if your goal is fitness related, setting out specific days and times to work out with a regime that fits with your personal fitness level and lifestyle can make sticking to your plan much easier than winging it or trying to go in too hard and too fast.10

5) Mindfully multi-task
This might sound counter-intuitive, but actively multi-tasking before working on your goal can help bring the brain and body into a state of alertness and increase the secretion of adrenaline, which can be useful to aid concentration for a task that requires high focus. 11

6) Reward yourself- Randomly
Reward centres in the brain are closely linked to the areas governing motivation and learning. Predictable rewards have been shown to lose their motivation quickly, so we should reward ourselves randomly and intermittently. 12
The exact reason this occurs is still being investigated and debated, but it is suggested that whilst the fast (phasic) release of dopamine that comes with regular rewards helps to form the behaviour this comes with the same level of stimulation each time meaning you will eventually seek it out less often. Slower (tonic) release of dopamine from random rewards is associated with an increased likliehood of continued engagement with the goal orientated action. 13


Harness the nose-brain connection and achieve your sleep goal this year
While all five senses influence the way we feel throughout the day, studies have shown that the sense of smell appears to have the most impact. This is because the perception of aromas is intimately related to the functions of the brain that influence mood and emotions. This Works has developed a collection of clinically tested, functional fragrances, designed to help manage your mood and emotions throughout the day. Each blend has been studied using fMRI imaging to assess the positive impact it has on the brain and the autonomic nervous system.
Reviewed by neuroscientists, our award-winning deep sleep pillow spray is expertly blended with our functional fragrance of Lavender, Camomile and Vetivert and is proven to help you fall asleep faster, improve sleep quality and wake feeling rested, meaning you are ready to take on your goals and whatever else the day might bring. A good night’s sleep is crucial for optimal mental and physical output, processing memories, consolidating emotions, and skin and muscle repair (to name just a few!). Make sure you’re getting the sleep you need to wake up well.14
 [14] Badre, G., Olausson, H., Ackerley, R., & Croy, I. (2018). Brain functional MRI (fMRI) study of fragrance inhalation. Any impact on sleep/wake/ reward-related brain areas? Journal of Sleep Research, 27, 164


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