Smarter, Stronger, Better Than Yesterday – The Beliefs That Will Make the Difference (And science has proven it.)

Smarter, Stronger, Better Than Yesterday - The Beliefs That Will Make the Difference (And science has proven it.)

One of the most remarkable and oh-so-good-to-be-human findings in the last decade or so is that we human type beings can change our brain. Clever aren’t we. (Go ahead – straighten your crown.) In an exciting twist on the nature/nurture debate, it turns out that what’s more important than either nature or nurture, is what we believe. 

Research led by Hans Schroder and published in the journal Biological Psychology, has found that telling people that ‘effort trumps genetics’ causes instant changes in the brain that motivate people towards success. When we open up to the idea that we are able to build our intelligence and strengthen various skills and qualities, we give our brain the fuel it needs to change and propel us forward. 

The messages we tell ourselves (or let others convince us of) are critical. Our brain hears all of them. All of us have a brain that is able to change, grow and strengthen in remarkable ways, but for this to happen, we need to believe that our brain can do this (awww – brains do care what we think.)

Research has shown that when we believe effort will make a difference to our achievement, our brain will change in ways that will set us towards that path. But there’s a flip side – if we believe that intelligence and abilities are fixed at birth, and that there is little we can do to change this, our learning and growth will be stunted.

What we are born with is just a starting point. We humans have incredible brains that are willing and so very able to change and strengthen in any direction we choose, but we have to back ourselves. More importantly, we have to be receptive to the fact – and it is a proven fact – that our effort will produce the changes in our brains that will make us smarter, stronger and more capable than before. 

As explained by researcher Hans Schroder,

‘Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance. In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning.’

The study provides physiological evidence of the powerful effect of mindset on performance. Mindset refers to our beliefs. Here’s the difference. People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and abilities can grow and change with effort. People with a fixed mindset believe that our abilities and intelligence are largely genetic, and that time and effort won’t make a difference.

So the research … lay it on me.

In one of the first studies to explore the physiological changes that are brought about by mindset, researchers looked at how mindset affects brain activity. Participants were divided into two groups.

One group read an article explaining that intelligence is genetically determined and therefore largely unchangeable (fixed mindset).

The other group read an article that explained that the brilliance of da Vinci and Einstein was ‘probably due to a challenging environment. Their genius had little to do with genetic structure.’ The article implied that intelligence was changeable (growth mindset).

Participants were directed to keep in mind the main points of the article. They then completed a simple computer task while their brain activity was recorded. Here’s what they found.

The fixed mindset group (‘intelligence is fixed and not changeable’):

•  paid more attention to their responses and focussed on performance;

•  despite the extra attention they gave to their responses, there was no improvement in subsequent trials.

•  results suggested a disconnect between brain and behaviour – participants focussed more on performance, but their performance did not improve.

The growth mindset group (‘intelligence can be improved through effort’):

•  paid more attention to the task;

•  showed a more efficient brain response when they made a mistake and adapted their behaviour accordingly – probably because of the belief they could improve next trial;

•  the more attention participants paid to their mistakes, the better they performed on the next trial.

What does other research say?

An overwhelming body of research has demonstrated the importance of mindset on performance and the findings are consistent and irrefutable. Here’s what we know:

  1. The brain has incredible potential to change and grow – more than we ever thought possible. 
  2.  Learning nurtures key aspects of intelligence.
  3. Effort and persistence in the face of difficulties are the backbone of outstanding achievement.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, has conducted extensive research in the area. Her work has been conducted primarily with children but her findings have implications for all of us.

In one study, students were praised for intelligence (‘You’re so smart!’) or effort (‘You worked really hard!’) when they responded correctly on a task. As the difficulty of the task increased, children who were praised for their effort performed better after mistakes than those who were told their performance was because of intelligence.

Dweck has studied thousands of children over three decades of research and concludes,

‘I think educators commonly hold two beliefs that (inadvertently hold students back). Many believe that praising students’ intelligence builds their confidence and motivation to learn; and students’ inherent intelligence is the major cause of their achievement in school. Our research has shown that the first belief is false and that the second can be harmful—even for the most competent students.’

What does it mean for me?

The study by Schroder and colleagues is the first study which has provided physiological evidence to support the importance of mindset on performance.

This study related to academic performance, as does an abundance of the research, but the relevance for this in other areas is enormous.

A growth mindset – the belief that effort makes the difference – is key in driving performance and has been shown to be effective in overcoming shyness, building resilience in the face of bullying, academic performance, weight loss and fitness, sporting ability and career success. It’s the key that unlocks the untapped potential in all of us.

What we think (or say) has a profound effect on our achievement and performance. We all – as in all of us – have a remarkable and proven capacity to change our brain. Being humans though, as bold, brilliant and beautiful as that is, we also have a remarkable capacity to get in our own way.

Some of our greatest barriers come from comparison. Sideways glances will too often cause us to stumble (or fall in love – sideways glances can do that too, but rarely while we are stuck in comparisons.) We are all born with flaws and we are all born with a great capacity for flight. Research is telling us clearly that we are born with a brain that is able to strengthen us towards lift-off, but only if we fuel it with the right messages. One of the most powerful of these is the belief that we can grow, learn, and strengthen.  

Of course, we need to back up those brain changing thoughts with a bit of action – brains are clever but they’re not magical – but what we think about our capacity to grow and strengthen our brain causes changes in the brain that can propel us forward. We were born to be bold, brilliant, strong and happy. The greatest power to achieve this lies in our own hands. The key is believing it’s there. 

[irp posts=”1657″ name=”Positioning Kids & Teens to Thrive: 11 Practical, Powerful Ways to Build a Growth Mindset”]

15 Comments

Sharon Hutchinson

Like Barbara’s comment above, my body is crumbling but my mind still functions on a high level (not bragging, just stating a fact). As a child my IQ was clocked at 165. Yet here I am a wreck whose body is disintegrating and the feeling of being a failure in life is very high. High IQ people are more likely to develop increasingly severe bi-polar depression as we age. Part of it stems from our feelings of being apart from other people as we can’t understand them and only feel comfortable when we meet another high IQ person. This translates into feeling like an alien.

The IQ is passed down within my family, as my father was super smart and one of my nieces is also genius level and was exempted from several classes and nationwide tests because of it. But I can recognize the same feelings of alienation and she struggles also with severe depression.

I don’t know what to make of this article. All I know is that I feel like a failure and wish I had done something with my brain. But life seems to have chosen a different path for me. Sorry for the rant but this subject is extremely important to me as my struggles continue on with age. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

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joelle

thank you for an informative article; I have to say that until recently, I was a bit fed up with that “growth mindset” buzz word as it is something that my children’s school has promoted for many years but without explaining it clearly so that it felt a little bit of an empty concept.

I feel for you Sarah Hutchinson…. It is very difficult to be labelled a genius and thus be a mirror for everyone’s expectations, expectations which could be quite different from your own. Paradoxically, although parents tend to think their child is “special”, most children dislike being different; and being validated by adults who admire your academic prowess does not compensate for a lonely childhood. Feel free to laugh in my face but I would advise that you go back to that little girl who was still unaware of her intellectual gifts and start drawing, painting, singing as if you were 4, 5 or 6 year old…. Actively pursue playful activities where you do not use your brain; if she is too far to meet in the flesh, skype your special niece and play online… Multiply the occasions for play and playfulness and set yourself on that growth mindset for childish abandonment and immaturity. I wish you well.

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Sharon Hutchinson

Actually, it didn’t bother me as a child because I was so different from the others anyway. One recess while others were outside playing I used a few blackboards to figure out how scientists arrived at the speed of light. My calculations filled the boards. One nun brought all the other teachers into the room to show what I had done.

But I thank you for your kind words. I sort of messed up my own life 🙁 High IQ children and adults tend not to have too much interest in socializing. What I do hang onto is the childlike sense of wonder about the world and universe that we live in. And I love playing difficult PC video games involving solving crimes and such. So I still try to play.

My niece is already being scouted by a few universities. She isolates herself from all but a few-which includes me-but I totally understand why. She has gotten a lot of flack from adults and doesn’t trust very many. I love that she is a member of a marching band and next semester is going to be a section band leader.

There is a flip side to the coin: children who are told they are stupid over and over again until they get to believe it themselves. I’ve seen that happen. My horrible in-laws call their son who has cerebral palsy “our little retard” in front of others. Unbelievable.

Please don’t feel that I am “bragging”. A high IQ all too often becomes a curse. It also carries with it a 53% more chance of suicidal attempts and completed suicides. If the brain is not constantly “fed” it tends to turn in on itself. Hard to explain how it feels. But as I tell myself “I’m not dead yet!”
Thank you so much for caring.

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Tracy

Hello Sharon, I trust this post finds you well and that you will take this in the spirit of my intention to “help”*.

I suggest the following system for you to use to regain your footing: EBTKS. Never heard of it you say? It is Everything But The Kitchen Sink. And it breaks down like this:

1) find a framework (or a couple) that explains how the mind/personality works (Currently, I like IFS and in your case I also suggest checking out Quantum Techniques for body health). Both of these come with tools.

2) find tools to help with sorting out what aspects of your mind that you would like to keep and what you would like to change (note that who you are now is your identity, so when you are making changes, there might be push back, which is why a framework is required to understand what you are changing beyond a behaviour/thought pattern). I like EFT as a tool. Its framework comes across as more straight ahead goal/outcome based which is why I did not mention it before now.

3) Work at it. Work at it. Work at it. (note that this system is allowed to be easy). Also, you don’t have to do this by yourself.

For one’s purpose in life, that requires a framework that you need to choose or keep many in mind as there are several avenues to explore – happy choosing – it’s your life, you’re mind, you are in charge of you. (yes, I’m blathering) See 3)

Oh, I keep mentioning choosing and that is, generally, the underlying issue in that we are so “programmed” to be who we are, we stop making choices or we stop allowing ourselves to make choices (I know my free will is around here somewhere. [Checks pockets]) That is what needs to be sorted out.

*I understand that “help” is not always helpful or required.

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Sharon Hutchinson

Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. It is well thought out and very much appreciated. I’m a bit confused as it is something I’ve never heard of before and would like to discuss it with my psychologist, who is very open to new (often really ancient) techniques.

I am open to any and all suggestions. The mind has been called “the universe within” and IMO we are just standing on the brink peering inside and taking those tentative steps into its mysteries.

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Laura

When I was a kid it was nice to be placed in the smart or gifted track, however, it really worked against me when I had learning difficulties due to dyslexia and other comprehension problems. My parents thought that since I was ‘smart’ I wouldn’t benefit from tutoring since I should be able to figure things out. In college it was clear that my friends who worked harder did as well or better in the long term than friends who were ‘smarter’. The friends who kept working at learning developed skills to keep a Growth Mindset. The rest of us are trying to get by with what we already know. As my memory has diminished due to age, I find that actively trying to understand how to figure things out gives me more confidence. Also, accepting with grace and humor that I don’t know everything certainly helps. Thanks for your article, it further encourages me to want to remember to be in the Growth Mindset path.

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Hey Sigmund

Laura thank you for sharing your story. I’m so pleased the research is starting to confirm what so many people (yourself included) have learned the hard way. And I love that you use grace and humour the way you do – it makes a difference doesn’t it!

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Barbara

Thank You, as always you give me hope. I need it so badly. My body is giving out. My mind goes on.

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Hey Sigmund

Barbara you’re so welcome. Keep your hope. Always keep your hope. And any time you have trouble finding it, come back here and let me help you find it.

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Jolanta

Dear`Karen, Thank you for your excellent articles. I think it is important to focus on the belief that we are capable of any achievements if we really focus and work hard. It is like a message we send to the universe, which comes back to us. However, sometimes the brain is stopped in processing this self encouragement. As a person, who had hypothyroidism, I was stopped from developing my full potential and my thoughts were like a ping pong ball going back and forwards. Once, I fixed my hypothyroid issues, I found the inner strength in me. Our health can affect the plasticity of our brain negatively at times.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely – the mind and body are so deeply connected aren’t they. Thank you for sharing your story – you make a lot of sense.

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Amy Steindler

This is an important concept, and one that I have experienced personally. Growing up, I was praised for my intellectual and academic abilities, which felt good as a child, but created two significant problems for me as I grew older.

First, I identified with the label “smart,” and made that mean that I had to have all the answers. I subconsciously worked to reinforce that label, needing to show just how smart I was, and how much I deserved the label. All the time. Not a great way to make friends!

The second issue grew out of the first–my need to be right about things, or clever, or knowledgeable, actually killed my curiosity, as I strove to know what I thought others expected me to know. Instead of asking questions, I sought to show that I already knew the answers to them. All the time. Not a great way to actually increase my knowledge.

Not knowing an answer became a source of stress and a self-esteem issue, because I would never be smart enough–would never know all the answers–no matter how hard I tried.

So, before we praise our children for their intelligence, let’s think about encouraging effort and curiosity, and see if we raise happier, more well-integrated kids!

Karen, thanks for this thought-provoking and well-researched article.

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Maria Smith

I have started teaching “Growth Mindset” in my Gifted Classes.
Many think that Gifted students are already smart so why use this. If a gifted child is always told how smart he or she is, what is he to think when they fail at something? “I’m not really smart”/”I’m no longer smart”.
They are children and do not know how to reconcile failure with lack of effort when they get to a point they are no longer able to get by on just their natural ability.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes it makes so much sense that gifted children need to know this. Failure is such an important part of growth and learning, and it’s vital for children to be able to move forward through failure, rather than take it as a personal deficiency. I love that you are teaching them this.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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