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Cultivating Perseverance

May 16, 2024

I am always interested in learning more about how to meet life’s inevitable challenges with resilience and resolve. So, I was intrigued by a well-known neuroscientist’s tweet about a brain region that research has shown to be associated with the trait of mental toughness or perseverance.

The anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC) is an area of our human brain that is linked to higher-level functions such as attention, motivation, decision-making, and impulse control. Recently, Andrew D. Huberman, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University, referred to the aMCC on the afore-mentioned tweet and discussed this neural hub on his blog (@hubermanlab), citing empirical evidence of its involvement in one’s ability to build will-power and tenacity. Moreover, the aMCC is stimulated by “leaning into” things that we don’t enjoy; by doing things that, in fact, we don’t want to do.

Perseverance is, of course, a vital trait to cultivate. It takes perseverance to earn an MBA or a PhD, will-power to train for an Ironman, tenacity to succeed in any profession. You have to run, bike or swim those daily miles or complete that daunting data analysis even when you’d rather just sit down and play Fortnite. And, according to Huberman, when we do something that’s hard, we begin to “grow” the aMCC, enhancing its structure and connectivity. When we step outside our comfort zone, stretch ourselves on a consistent basis, we build mental toughness.

Huberman’s point seems to be backed by various studies, including the research of Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. At the same time, psychologists and other scientists suggest that the anterior mid-cingulate cortex is just one piece of a complex puzzle. An individual’s ability to draw upon physical and psychological resources in the face of obstacles or setbacks is an interplay of genetics, general health, and social/cultural factors—and further research is needed to get the whole picture.

An article published by the brainfirst institute cites both psychologists and neuroscientists on the subject of perseverance, including research by psychologist Angela Duckworth which shows that passion and persistence for long-term goals—or “grit”—are better indicators of success than IQ or talent. Duckworth is a MacArthur “genius”, the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, discusses research by Carol Dweck, which suggests that a “growth mindset” plays a crucial role in the development of perseverance.

A growth mindset—the belief that one’s abilities are not fixed but can be developed—allows individuals to see difficulty as an opportunity for intellectual or athletic development, rather than as a dead-end. This mindset plays a critical role in how we perceive obstacles or failures, which can be viewed as opportunities to turn a setback into effective problem-solving, such as seeking out a knowledgeable mentor or a supportive coach. Or, as Huberman might suggest, doing the hard thing—spending that extra hour to prepare for an exam or tough it out at the gym.

Certainly, we can take away that continuing to challenge oneself, to learn new skills, set new goals and seek out novel experiences, seems like a very good way to cultivate cognitive and physical health.

“The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Cingulate Gyrus” Parvizi, Josef, et al. Neuron, 2013 December 18.

“Relevance of the anterior cingulate cortex volume and personality in motivated physical activity behaviors,” Miro-Padila, Anna, et al, Communications Biology, 2023, referenced in Nature

“The Power of Perseverance,” brainfirst institute, November 14, 2023

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087.