Objective: Having a strong sense of purpose in life is associated with positive health behaviors. However, the processes through which purpose leads to health are unclear. The current study compared neural activity among individuals with higher versus lower purpose while they made health-related decisions in response to messages promoting health behavior change. Method: A total of 220 adults with a sedentary lifestyle who were likely to feel conflicted in response to health messages underwent functional MRI while viewing messages encouraging physical activity and indicated the self-relevance of the messages. We focused on activity within dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), anterior insula (AI), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) as identified by meta-analytically defined maps of regions previously implicated in conflict-related processing, while participants considered the self-relevance of the messages. Results: Individuals with higher (vs. lower) purpose showed less activity in dACC, AI, DLPFC, and VLPFC while making health-decisions. Lower brain response in these regions mediated the effect of higher purpose on greater endorsement of the messages. Conclusions: Individuals with strong purpose may be less likely to experience conflict-related regulatory burden during health decision-making, which may in turn allow them to accept conflicting yet beneficial health messages. Reduced brain reactivity in dACC, AI, DLPFC, and VLPFC may reflect reduced conflict-related processing during health decision-making relevant to longer term lifestyle goals. This adds to mounting evidence linking purpose and a range of positive health-related outcomes, as well as evidence suggesting that dACC, AI, DLPFC, and VLPFC track conflict-related processes relevant to longer term goals and values.
"Purpose in Life and Conflict-Related Neural Responses During Health Decision-Making." Health Psychology, 2019.