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Expert Spotlight: Anne Larsen on Mindset & Motivation

By Nat Howard, BA Dip Edu


Why do some people seem to be naturally motivated? Why can’t everyone just learn to be like that?


Anne Larsen, PHA VP of Education, sheds light on this and other common misconceptions about how mindset and motivation actually works in different brains. In this interview, we cover everything from motivation myths and assumptions, to the brain chemistry of voles, and the surprising truths we discover from those cute questions like “If you were a dog what breed would you be?


Meet Anne Larsen

Anne has over 35 years experience as a mental health social worker, family therapist and clinical leader and educator. Anne currently assesses, endorses and integrates health and medical professionals trained in the art and science of precision health into the personalised ecosystem that is the Precision Health Alliance.


What is the number 1 reason why any health, wellbeing, or fitness provider needs to understand the personal neurobiology of their clients?


We already know people are different. We see it play out in society all the time. We naturally expect certain things from certain kinds of body types. But there’s a lot of science behind how we can really get that right, how we can really know how the mind works and is developed alongside the body.


We know that our minds work differently. I’ve spent years working with people who say things like, “But surely Anne, doesn’t everyone think like that?” The answer is, well no. There’s no such thing as “everybody is…”


People engage in the world in very different ways depending on their neurobiology, on the hormones they are most receptive to, and the parts of their brain that they are predominantly using. 


When you know that, you get to engage with people on a completely different level. You know how to approach them in a way that they’ll be able to really hear what you’re saying.


What is the most common mistake you see coaches and health providers make about what’s going on inside their client’s mind?


When it comes to health professionals, the biggest mistake is when it comes to understanding motivation. We’ve all read the books and seen the science around the importance of goal setting, mental contrasting, seeing a goal as a gift, motivational interviewing to look at how ‘ready’ people are. There’s a lot of literature out there. 


But what we see is that there are some people who seem naturally more self motivated. And what we do is attribute a meaning to that: ‘That’s great, they’ve got a lot of self motivation. Everyone should be like them. Just do what they’re doing.” I think that’s the biggest mistake. “Look at them! They set a goal and they just did it. And it’s great that they did it for themselves.”


But what we know when we understand behavioural epigenetics, is that some people don’t have that self motivation. They actually have a whole set of genes that means they operate in quite a different way, and certain things are more important to them. Other people are really important to them. They’re also natural energy conservers. When we see someone like that, what we can do is look at them and project onto that person and say “Oh they must be lazy. Someone just needs to give them a kick. How come that other person responded really well to my coaching practice or my health advice, and this person didn’t?” 


That’s what we provide here with Precision Health. When we’re looking at a person, we’re able to know that they’ll have a different level of self motivation, and what strategies we can use to help that person engage with what’s really important to them. 


What scientific research can you share to explain why this motivational drive can be so different between people? 


We do know that a lot is due to people’s sensitivity to certain hormones. We can’t always measure it exactly, but we can see it from people’s development in utero.


We can sometimes even see a particular gene expression, like the comt-4 gene. When people have that, they don’t have the same amount of dopamine. Most people would know that dopamine is the driving hormone. Some people think of it as just reward, but it’s so much more than that, it’s the driver. It says “I can see that reward, when I get there I’m going to feel so good, so I’m going to just keep striving for that.” So if you’ve got a high sensitivity to dopamine you’re going to really seem like a highly motivated person. Well, you are, but everyone can be motivated. 


The Dopamine / Prolactin Axis


For instance, if you’ve got different genes and you’ve got a high sensitivity to prolactin, your motivation is different. We hear a lot in the training of health or fitness professionals, “People have got to do it for themselves.” That’s great if you’ve got a high sensitivity to dopamine, but if you’ve got a sensitivity to prolactin, it’s totally different. Prolactin works in an antagonistic way to dopamine. The higher our dopamine, the lower our prolactin, and vice versa. Women would know this especially, (although everyone has prolactin.) A woman might be very career oriented, then after having a baby she can feel that she just wants to stay home and look after her baby for a bit longer than she thought she would. That’s prolactin. 


If you have a sensitivity to prolactin, whether you have children or not, it makes you more caring for others, more sacrificing, very generous. If you want to motivate someone like that, you need to motivate them about the importance of their own health in this way. It has to be around how they can care for themselves so they can be there to care for others. 


Here’s where we get to the voles…


It’s similar with whether you’ve got a sensitivity to oxytocin. There’s been plenty of research in voles, looking at the difference between the mountain versus the desert voles. Some are really connected, with a really good society of voles, and they actually cooperate really well. Surprise surprise, it’s because these ones have a high sensitivity to oxytocin, the bonding hormone. 


We also see this in people. People who have that extra sensitivity to oxytocin don’t “do it for themselves.” What they’re asking for, literally from their neurobiology, is “Where are the other people? Where is my tribe? I can’t feel good until I have people around me. Then I can go do all the healthy things and change my behaviour.”


You can see how profound this is. You can see these people are going to do really well in a group. But if I suggest a group program to someone else they’re not going to be interested. Straight away you can see what a great tool this is to have at your disposal. 


How can a coach or provider know what motivation strategy to use with their clients?


We have the best tool available, the most cutting edge tool of precision health, which is the Shae™ profile. When someone gets their profile, there’s an excellent section in the app all about their Mind. It helps us understand what is important to that person, how they approach the world, how they are going to receive information, and how they’re going to make meaning of their lives.


Making Your Strategies Precise…


“People talk a lot about “the Why.” One of the most evidence based behavioural change processes is called ‘The WOOP,’ done by New York University, with over 20 years research around it. We ask what is the person’s wish, and then what is the outcome they want. We can think of that as their ‘why.’ But what we understand with epigenetics and the ph360 Shae profile, is what is really important to the person. When we’re looking at their why, we can really know what it is for them based on their neurobiology. For some people, their ‘why’ is their mission, their productivity and clarity of mind. For someone else it’s to have an experience of adventure, fun and the ability to be spontaneous in life. 


So when you start to engage in any therapy, or lifestyle coaching, you’ve got all these tools you can use, but you’ve got to make it precise. And now you can do that with this epigenetic lens and fine tune your practice to the person.


“If you were a dog, what breed would you be?”


You know, before I knew all this, I had a really surprising conversation – in that I was surprised that I was surprised. Someone asked the question “If you were a dog what breed of dog would you be?” One man, who I now understand through his epigenetics is what we call a Crusader, he said, “I would be a husky. Because huskies have a job to do, and they get it done, hard and fast. I don’t care about comfort, I don’t care about the cold or not eating very much, I’m just doing my job.” And honestly I was flabbergasted. Even with all my years being a therapist, it just never crossed my mind that somehow people wouldn’t be driven towards wanting some kind of relaxed, comfortable, pleasurable life. But that’s just me projecting, because my epigenetics leads me to be motivated to feel comfortable.


Keen to learn more? Discover your and your clients’ epigenetic profiles, and learn how to use this information for personalised motivation and success. To experience the educational power of Anne Larsen and our industry leading team of Precision Health Educators, sign up now for the next  PHA course. Accredited CEC points included.



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