We are surrounded by stimuli. Whenever we are awake and conscious, a constant stream of information is pouring into our brains. From this, we have to selectively attend to those stimuli which are salient; that is, those that convey information that will inform our actions– more importantly, we need to attend especially to those stimuli with which we can interact. A one hundred dollar bill is much more interesting laying on the sidewalk in front of us than taped out of reach behind an alarmed glass plate. So the first element of a motivational structure is the salience we attach to stimuli and how that salience directs our attention. The salience attached to stimuli is, at least partially, learned. For example, fashionistas and small dogs are both likely to pay more attention to what shoes guests are wearing, perhaps for different reasons, than your average Joe. A criminal is more likely to take note of the police officer on the corner than an office worker at lunch.
Confronted with any particular stimulus, there are usually multiple actions we can take. Coming across the nice police officer, we can smile and say ‘Good Day’ or we could avert our eyes, maybe duck down a sidestreet, or in some cases we might run like hell. The range of responses we have determines how flexible we can be in response to that stimulus and, importantly, how well we can respond to our advantage. Forgetting about the cop for a minute, think instead of ping-pong. For a beginner, the ball hurling toward you induces only one response: swipe and hope like hell you hit the ball. As a person continues to play, however, they develop a more refined set of responses generally tied to a more refined sense of stimuli. That is, the ball is not only coming at me, but is heading toward the left corner with an up-spin. . . so I know what to do. My response, in turn, sends the ball barreling like a bullet back to the right edge of my opponent’s side. So a second element of a motivational structure is response repertoire. This may be counter-intuitive at first. We think of motivation as that which makes us want to do something, not the something we do. But the ultimate purpose of any action is to affect some change in the world. . . whether that be ending poverty or scoring a point in basketball. When our actions yield positive results, they are rewarding. And that makes it likely we will repeat them. Thus, our response repertoire and skill set comprise a critical part of our motivational structure: we repeat what has been successful previously.
The final element of a motivational structure is automaticity. Timeliness is of the utmost importance. If we are to select salient stimuli and emit advantageous responses, we must, generally speaking, do it quickly. When that ping-pong ball comes hurling at you, there is no time for deliberation. There is no time to analyze its angle of approach, velocity and spin. This has to all be recognized automatically. Not just ping-pong, but in everyday life: we have to constantly sort through a noisy barrage of stimuli and respond pseudo-instantaneously, without deliberation. The vast majority of our daily actions are, in fact, entirely habitual.
The basal ganglia appear to play a critical role in this sort of automatic, habitual sensorimotor integration: selecting and highlighting salient stimuli and generating a rapid response, all rapidly and without deliberation or much, if any, conscious awareness. If motivation is ‘that which moves us’– those processes that generate our actions and choices– this system, by shaping what we attend to and our immediate, habitual responses, very much shapes our movements and actions, which in turn shapes how the world responds to us. In this sense, this basal ganglia system may be thought of as motivational structures, guiding and directing our behavior.
The basal ganglia, then, represent a key point of access for creating and transforming motivation, a substrate for motivational scaffolding, a mechanism for motivational plasticity. How would this work? The basal ganglia learn. Specifically, their learning is guided by reward, that is, reinforcement learning. When something good happens, they remember. They remember the stimulus and action that preceded the good outcome, increasing the probability that (a) they will notice that stimulus in the future and (b) will emit a similar response. It worked before, why not again? In this way, the basal ganglia facilitate rapid, efficient and adaptive responding to the environment.
From the point of view of video games and educational or other games with a purpose, the critical point is that reward need not be important. Though it’s true that a big, valuable reward, like winning $10,000 is highly reinforcing, little stupid rewards tend to do the trick also, like getting ’80 coin’ in Farmville for clicking on a crop. That is, reward and motivation are not one and the same. Motivation is that which moves me and shapes my actions. Reward is simply a positive outcome, feedback. Getting rewarded can change my motivational structure. When we motivate a child with a cookie, we shouldn’t worry about whether this represents intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. It doesn’t matter. What is important is that the cookie comprises a positive outcome that induces learning and change, altering the child’s motivational structure– how he or she will see the world and the opportunities it presents for action.
By designing games informed by how the the basal ganglia work, we have a strategy for shifting how an individual sees and interacts with their environment: what they pay attention to and how they respond; in essence, what is important to them as they encounter the world each and every day. These brain processes and structures are evolutionarily ancient and profoundly powerful. Tapping into this sort of deep structure is precisely how Zynga has managed to get millions of people to regularly log on and play what is, looked at objectively, an inane, tedious and pointless game. In the next blog or two I will revisit the ‘ville universe of Zynga and how those games masterfully leverage basal ganglia mediated processes to engage an absurd number of millions of players.