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Quit or persist?

Why do our brains sometimes tell us to stop doing something, even when we know that we will be better off if we continue?

It is a question that Dr Kristin Hillman (Department of Psychology) hopes to answer in her research on “the neural mechanisms of forfeit behaviour”.

Hillman explains that we all quit minor tasks from time to time, but giving up during more important undertakings can adversely affect our personal and professional lives and, in excess, characterise clinical disorder.

Hillman says that the research involves using laboratory rats to test the hypothesis that quitting relates to two specific regions of the brain talking to one another.

“We think that the anterior cingulate cortex provides a 'keep going' signal after it decides that effort will pay off, and the anterior insula provides a 'quitting' signal as things start to get tough and tiring and frustrating.”

Hillman says that, if this turns out to be the case, it could enable the development of therapies to reduce detrimental quitting behaviours and increase well-being.

For clinical disorders, she says that this could involve drug or behavioural therapies but, for most people, it could be as simple as getting some daily exercise.

Hillman, research fellow Blake Porter and a future PhD student, will undertake the three-year research project, which is supported by the Marsden Fund.

Hillman says that the research stems from her fascination with why some people work hard at their jobs or personal hobbies, and others do not.

Photo: Graham Warman
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