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:
- The brain has incredible potential to change and grow – more than we ever thought possible.
- Learning nurtures key aspects of intelligence.
- 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.
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