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Your Brain on Purpose: The Amazing Ways a Life Purpose Can Change Your Brain

We’ve long touted the many benefits that a purpose in life can have on the body. Many of these benefits are rooted in the neuroscience of the brain. Let’s take a deep dive into some of the amazing findings on how purpose can alter and improve the brain itself.

Improved Communication Across Brain Networks

The main focus of this study was to assess the impact of purpose on feelings of loneliness. The results showed that people with higher levels of purpose in life have lower levels of loneliness, and people with low levels of life purpose have high levels of loneliness.

Another insight was uncovered along the way about purpose and the brain. The insight involves the default mode network and the limbic network, two key sets of structures in the brain. The limbic network controls emotions, motivation, and long-term memory, among other functions. Some aspects the default mode network regulates are our sense of self (memories about ourselves, reflections on our emotions), empathy, and envisioning the future. 

The research showed that people with higher levels of meaning in life had “increased connectivity within nodes of the [default mode network],” implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays a role in. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together.

Strengthen Your Ability to Manage Negative Stimuli

The amygdala is the part of the brain that detects and responds to threatening information. It regulates fear, our response to fear, and survival instincts.

This study had people sit in an MRI machine and measured their brain activity while showing them various images. They started with neutral images, like mundane household objects, to get a baseline reading. Then, sad, scary, and disturbing images were shown of things like graveyards, violence, and close-ups of cockroaches.

While their scores on the overall Physical Well-Being survey were not associated with significantly lower amygdala activity, their score on the Purpose in Life subtest was. In other words, people with a higher sense of purpose in life find negative stimuli less salient. While the clear takeaway of this study is that purposeful people do better in haunted houses, the results also suggest that people living purposeful lives stay more calm and mindful when confronted with strong negative emotions.

Improved Intrinsic Motivation and Coping with Everyday Stressors

The ventral striatum is believed to help us make the connection between actions and rewards; it helps us understand how our choice of actions leads to an outcome. The ventral striatum is part of the basal ganglia, the group of structures that control motivation. It also plays a role in voluntary movements, helping you turn your thoughts into actions.

Purpose in life is linked to sustained ventral striatum activation. Ventral striatum activation has been shown to have a positive impact on motivation and engagement, even in the absence of direct feedback or rewards. This means that people with a higher sense of purpose are more intrinsically motivated; instead of being motivated by the rewards they get from the tasks they complete, seeing the outcome they create is motivation in and of itself.

High levels of activity in the ventral striatum also predict lower levels of cortisol output. Cortisol, known as “the stress hormone,” also has a role in regulating metabolism and controlling inflammation. High levels of cortisol can even make us overreact to common, everyday stressors like driving and public speaking, which has a long-term negative impact on health and can harm interpersonal relationships. Thankfully, because their ventral striatum are more active and therefore they produce less cortisol, purposeful people are better equipped to respond to the stressors we face in everyday life.

Healthier Brain Aging

We all know that our brains age along with us. According to Harvard’s medical school, as we age, our brain physically changes: the hippocampus (responsible for memory, learning, and motivation) shrinks, and the myelin sheath (which protects our nerve fibers) wears down. Thinking becomes slower and it becomes harder for us to encode new memories. 

What’s amazing is that purpose in life seems to slow down these effects. This study surveyed elderly participants, aged 70 to 103, and found that the brains of people with a higher sense of purpose in life age better than those without. They reported lower levels of functional disability, performed better on cognitive tests of memory and processing speed, and reported better self-rated health overall.

Healthier Brain Function in Adulthood

While a lot of research focuses on the effect of purpose on the brains of the elderly, this study drew from a population of people in adulthood, most of whom were aged 32 to 50. It researched the effect of purpose in life on cognitive functions, including executive functioning and episodic memory.

Executive functioning is composed of activities involving planning, decision making, and attention. Episodic memory is our capacity to remember specific events that happened to us. These are two important indicators of cognitive function, and declines in these levels can be early signs of Alheimer’s disease.

The results showed that higher scores for purpose in life were correlated with higher scores for both executive functioning and episodic memory, as well as overall measures of cognitive functioning. As it turns out, the brain benefits of purpose extend beyond the benefits for elderly people.

More Open to New Experiences

This study had a sample composed of people who were overweight or obese and got little physical activity. They were shown 30 messages: 10 detailing the risks of being sedentary, 10 reasons why they should become more active, and 10 strategies for becoming more active. Their degree of purpose in life was also assessed.

The research found that people with a greater sense of purpose in life were more likely to endorse messages about why and how they could become more physically active. People with more life purpose had less brain activity in the areas of the brain that play a role in conflict processing during health decision making, and this lower amount of conflict made them more willing to accept health advice. Purposeful people have physically different brain activity–their brains are more open-minded to advice.

Less Likely to Develop Alzheimer’s and Mild Cognitive Impairment

Researchers surveyed retirement home dwellers on their sense of purpose in life and a variety of other factors. Seven years later, they returned to see if there was a long-term effect of a sense of purpose in life.

Besides age and a mental state examination, the most statistically significant predictor of developing Alzherimer’s was their score on the purpose in life questionnaire. The same was true for MCI (mild cognitive impairment). Purpose in life was an even more statistically significant predictor than depressive symptoms, social network size, and number of other medical conditions.

A later article, New Movement in Neuroscience: A Purpose-Driven Life, suggests that this study indicates purpose can ramp up cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is how resilient one’s brain is to brain injury. People with more cognitive reserve can withstand more brain injury before developing adverse neurological symptoms, which would explain why the more purposeful people in the study had a decreased chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

There are plenty of health-related reasons to instill a sense of purpose in your life, both for the brain and otherwise. But we believe it makes you a better person as well. Purposeful people are more driven and are striving to be their best. The benefits of purpose don’t stop at improving your own brain–the people around you will thank you, too.

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