Neuroplasticity – the reason our brains are not ‘fixed’.

When we let go of the idea that our brains are fixed, we stop believing that our genetics determine our lives’ pathways, and instead learn that our brains are incredibly adaptable. The knowledge that every time we learn something new our brains change comes from perhaps the most important research of this decade ‘brain plasticity’ also known as ‘neuroplasticity’.

 

If you want your child to adopt growth mindset, avoid labeling them as ‘smart’.

Starting at the age of three, children are prone to adopting a damaging fixed mindset from a seemingly innocuous word that’s used everywhere – the word ‘smart’. Parents regularly praise their children by telling how smart they’re in order to build up their confidence. Unfortunately, children start to think ‘Oh good, I’m smart’, but then later when they struggle or fail, as everyone does at some point, they start to change their thinking ‘Oh, I’m not so smart after all’. And so, they end up constantly evaluating themselves against the fixed idea.

 

Don’t get this wrong. It’s fine to praise people, but always praise for what they did and not them as people.

Instead of praising “You solved that tricky problem like that? That is so smart! say “I loved your solution to the problem; It’s so creative.”

Carol Dweck is a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, why people succeed (or don’t) and how to foster success. One of Carol Dweck’s most famous studies gave two groups of students a challenging task. On completion, one group was praised for being ‘really smart’, while the other was praised for working hard. Both groups were then offered a choice between two follow-up tasks, one that’s easy and one that’s challenging. 90% of students praised for working hard chose the challenging task whereas majority of those praised for being smart chose the easy task so they can continue to look smart.

 

If your student or team become disillusioned because others are ahead of them, champion one word – “Yet”.

You are not terrible at drawing. You just haven’t learned to draw well yet. This may seem like a small linguistic change but it’s important one. It moves the focus from the perceived personal lack to progress of learning.

 

Your student or team might ultimately fail on a problem but praise the correct thinking/effort.

‘False growth mindset’ thinking is telling students or your team to simply try harder and praising them for effort even if they fail. This backfire because people know praise is a consolation prize. Instead you should praise the learning – the effort that led to some result that could be used to build on moving forward.

 

Key Message #1 Every time we learn, our brains form, strengthen or connect neural pathways. We need to replace the idea that learning ability is fixed, with recognition that we’re all on a growth journey.

Researchers found brains are literally growing new connections and pathways as the adults study, learn and when the pathways are no longer needed, they faded away (this is why continuous learning and applying what you learn is important).

Researches now know when we learn something, we grow the brain in 3 ways:

  1. New pathway is formed.
  2. Pathway that’s already there is strengthened.
  3. A connection is formed between two previously unconnected pathways.

In another study, ‘learning disabled’ students developed their brains to an extent that allowed them to function in almost the same way as ‘regular performers’.

Many of us have grown feeling judged for everything, often feeling not good enough and worrying about being found out. When people let go of fixed mindsets, they become liberated. When we face a challenging uncertain situation rather than turning away because of fear of not being good enough, we should dive in, knowing that the situation presents opportunities for brain growth.

“If I grew up in a world where no one was labeled as gifted, I would have asked a lot more questions.”

 

Key Message #2 The times when we are struggling and making mistakes are the best times for bran growth.

Brain researches show increased brain activity when people struggle and make mistakes and decreased activity when they get work correct. Unfortunately, most learners still think they should always be getting right the first time, and many feel if they struggle, they’re not good learners when this is the very best thing they can be doing.

Understand that world-class experts – pianists, chess players, novelists, athletes – practiced for around ten thousand hours over twenty years. Success isn’t related to tests of intelligence but to amount of deliberate practice they undertook.

When you’re int the valley, you’re in the deep dark trenches of change. Honor that time, work through it and someday you’ll be on the mountain looking back and be grateful.

 

Key Message #3 When we change our beliefs, our bodies and brains physically change as well.

Researches found those people who thought they were doing more exercise were actually healthier than those who thought they were doing less, even when the amount of exercise was the same. The difference between negative and positive thinkers is incredible. Negative thinkers are 71% more likely to die in the follow-up period than those who thought positively about their exercise.

The mind has remarkable power over the body and its muscles. Researchers again found strength can be improved by mental training without moving your arms and legs. You might think ‘Cool then we no longer need to go to the gym’, and you are in part correct. When our brain imagines in a focused way the development of muscles, they actually strengthen through the development of enhanced signaling in the brain.

Two siblings lined up their toys but in a moment of excitement, the little girl fell of the bed. Her brother heard a crash and peered over to see his sister landed on her hands and knees. Worrying she might be hurt and that she was about to erupt in a loud wail that would wake up their parents, he said “Amy did you see how you landed? No human lands on all fours like that. You… you’re a unicorn!” We don’t always have to be an older brother, instead we have knowledge of ways to handle failure to develop a positive mindset and creativity in solving problems.

 

Key Message #4 Neural pathways and learning are optimized when considering ideas with a multidimensional approach.

Effort is key but it’s not the only thing. You need to try new strategies and seek input from others when you’re stuck. Despite Einstein’s incredible achievements, he was quick to point they didn’t come from a gift or special talent but dedication and hard work. In his words:

“A person who never made a mistake never tried something new. It’s not that I’m smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer. I have no special talent. I’m only passionately curious. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Einstein’s brain which sits on microscope slides in a museum in Philadelphia has been examined for special qualities. Many visitors have stared at his brain and not noticed anything remarkable, but researchers found something interesting. What’s different in the brains of people who are outliers in their fields is they have more active connections between different brain areas, and more flexibility in their thinking. It’s not something they’re born with. It’s something they developed through learning.

Fold a diamond paper this way:

Put the problem in the center of the diamond and use the four quadrants to invite different forms of thinking.

 

Key Message #5 Speed of thinking is not a measure of aptitude. Learning is optimized when we approach ideas and life with creativity and flexibility.

Adam Grant is a renowned American organizational psychologist. In one of his studies, Grant concludes:

“Although we rely on them (gifted and geniuses) to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill”. Those who go on the change the world are creative and flexible thinkers, people who think outside the box.

 

Key Message #6 Connecting with people and ideas enhances neural pathways and learning.

If you aren’t getting push backs, you’re probably not being disruptive enough. Whoever made a difference by being like everyone else? New ideas will never be easy for some people to accept yet they’re very important. Ideas that are hardest for people to accept are those that go against the status quo and they may be the most important of all.

One of the teachers found two kids in his class disagreeing with each other. In their words: “I think I know what you were thinking, but it’s really this…”. “Oh yeah, that is what I was thinking”. And those are first graders!

Thinking is inherently social. Even when we read alone, we’re interacting with the author’s thoughts. It’s very important, perhaps the essence of learning when we develop the capacity to connect with another person’s ideas to build them into our thinking.

 

Don’t fall prey to the thinking that you do less as you grow older.

As people age, many start to believe that they’re capable of less and this in turn influences important decisions they make late in their lives. Researchers have found elderly people who pursued more leisure activities have a 38% lower risk of developing dementia. They are also happier and live longer in general than those who fall prey to limiting beliefs. So instead of retiring to a life of minimal activity, we really should fill our retirement years with new challenges and learning opportunities.

Above all, remember that when you fall from the metaphorical bunk bed, which we all do from time to time, don’t despair. Say out loud “I’m a unicorn!” and get back to work.


Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.