the most important thing you will learn about your brain

The Most Important Thing You Will Learn About Your Brain

After you read this your brain will not be the same.

Quite literally I mean that – in a physical sense. Our brain is constantly changing at every moment of our lives without thinking about it. But when we think, it’s about to…

And it’s not as simple as the dying and regrowth of brain cells. Deep inside our heads, a sophisticated process of forging new connections and building complex neural networks is constantly taking place. And the exciting part is: We can build, and even re-build, our own brain to our advantage by applying the right mindset.

That’s right. We can literally think our way towards a new upgraded physical brain that will make our lives better, easier and even more enjoyable. Scientists are publishing more and more research articles indicating the incredible mind-brain connection, and how we can have a say on this process.

To unpack this, I”ll be using the two to main keywords used within the fields of psychology and neuroscience: The Growth Mindset & Neuroplasticity. A duo of mirror concepts, but described within the context of different disciplines.

The Growth Mindset

The Growth Mindset is a term invented by Carol Dweck – professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She popularised the term through her book “Mindset – The New Psychology Of Success“. In her book, she dives deep into how our mindset shapes whether we believe we can learn and change and grow – or not.

According to Dweck, there exist two extremes when it comes to mindset that determines whether we accomplish something or not. That differs between people, but also between the different aspects of our individual lives.

“In a Growth Mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Carol Dweck

The Growth Mindset supports the idea that you can learn, change and grow at any age within every aspect of your life. The assumption is that intelligence, wisdom, and skill can be cultivated through sustained effort and is not merely determined by genetics.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dweck also defines the Growth Mindset counterpart: The Fixed Mindset.

People with a Fixed Mindset believe that a person’s abilities are set in stone from birth. You are, by nature, either born intelligent and talented, average, or stupid and incompetent (bluntly said) – and will stay that way for the rest of your life.

Of course, these concepts are defined in extremes. All people can be placed somewhere on the Growth-Fixed Mindset spectrum. Moreover, individual people even apply different mindsets within different aspects of their lives. The Growth Mindset perspective is that we can change everything from athleticism to intelligence, creativity, and even our character. All through persistent and calculated effort.

Photo by Brad Barmore on Unsplash

Identifying Mindsets

Where you stand of the Growth-Fixed Mindset spectrum is mostly determined by your perspective on two factors:

  1. The Skill: You could have a Growth Mindset toward physical strength, but a Fixed Mindset toward language learning or musical ability.
  2. The Actor: You may believe that others are more (or less) changeable than yourself, through prejudices by gender, race, age, social class, or upbringing.

So, you can limit yourself within a certain area in your life by making baseless comparisons.

You could plateau at playing the piano because you have a more natural talent for sports – so you think music is just not for you. Or you might look at professional musicians, and tell yourself you could never reach that kind of level – not realizing the hours of practice and effort that they’ve put in.

Of course, it’s totally okay to plateau or never become better at certain skills. You might be just fine with the level you are at right now. However, it is my belief that the extent to which you can improve a skill is wildly underestimated.

And this belief, no matter who you are, will hold you back from cultivating a wide variety of skills in different fields and become better and grow in every aspect of your life. In other words, by adopting a growth mindset you will become a more holistically skilled human being.

“Did changing toward a growth mindset solve all my problems? No. But I know that I have a different life because of it – a richer one. And that I’m a more alive, courageous, and open person because of it.”

Carol Dweck

For people that have fully committed themselves to a Growth Mindset, life is in all its facets a constant state of change. They know that by applying the behavior and thinking of a Growth Mindset will help them lead better lives.

Here are a few of the most relevant examples of such thinking and behavior compared to the Fixed Mindset.

Growth Mindset VS Fixed Mindset:

  • Seeing obstacles as valuable challenges VS Seeing obstacles as annoying problems
  • Loving the process of overcoming obstacles VS Acting tiresome in overcoming obstacles
  • Perceiving failures as opportunities to grow VS Perceiving failures as disasters revealing incompetence
  • Seeing effort as the path to mastery VS Seeing effort as fruitless over time
  • Being concerned with improving yourself VS Being concerned to be judged and proving yourself to others

How to cultivate a Growth Mindset

These patterns of thinking and behavior are not mere guesswork but backed by real science. Studies have shown that the theories people have about their own intelligence and abilities have a significant impact on their motivation, effort, approach to obstacles, and reaction to failure.

For this reason, the importance of the role of teachers and parents cannot be underestimated, as they are the ones influencing children’s beliefs about themselves from a very young age. Research has shown that the type of feedback that children are exposed to significantly impact their motivation and performance.

Take this study done with 5th graders: Two groups of children were assigned a puzzle tasks. After succeeding in the puzzles, both groups were provided with feedback. (both groups had done equally well) One of the groups was praised for their talent and intelligence. The other group was praised for their perseverance and effort.

What happened when both groups were gradually given more challenging tasks?

The talent and intelligence-praised kids were less persistent and showed less enjoyment. Overall, their performance worsened as the challenges became more difficult compared to the effort-praised group. The effort-praised group showed more challenge-seeking behavior, excitement for more difficult puzzles, and showed a much steeper learning curve.

It is mind-blowing to me, that such a subtle difference in praise can affect a child’s performance is such a big way. But it makes sense. Praising talent and intelligence is like praising on fixed ability.

So, when you fail, you feel incompetent with no hope for improvement. However, when you praise effort, it cultivates the belief for growth through hard work – which is a much happier thought.

How Legends are made

Robert Greene (author of 6 international best-sellers), for writing his book “Mastery”, analyzed the link between inborn talent and the mastery of a skill or field. What he found was that a majority of young children that show outstanding talent, never really go on to their expected remarkable achievement.

Instead, it is far more common than the children who show little sign of brilliance in school – the average kid – go on a journey of world-class achievement.

Take Michael Jordan, who is considered to be the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Not many people know that he was initially cut from his high school basketball team by his coach. This set-back sparked a fire in Michael that eventually brought him to where he is today: A world-famous Sports-Legend.

“If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan is a prime example of someone with a Growth Mindset. He realised from a very young age that life does not come without failure and disappointment. They are simply clues to how to do it better next time.

And take note of what Michael says about ‘How’ to climb obstacles. It’s not merely about hard work, but a combination of hard work, learning from failures and adapting your strategy accordingly. That’s the winning combination leading to effective growth.

Don’t get me wrong, genetics definitely partly influence later success, but it merely determines the starting line. It is a combination of consistent effort and effective strategies that determine the finish line. Of course, not everybody can become a world-class MBA player. People with a low level of inborn mind-body coordination are simply too far behind to ever catch up with those born with rare talent.

However, it is a question of mindset of how far you will be able to stretch your skills and abilities. With a Growth Mindset you will be able to accelerate your learning, catch up, and even overtake more talented people. So, don’t underestimate your potential. Just like neuroscientists have underestimated our brain for years…

Neuroplasticity

Although “neuroplasticity” sounds very new-agy, the term was already used by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorki in 1948. It was his way to describe his observations of changing neural brain structures. This was the start of a new scientific movement that disproved the idea that, once fully formed, the brain has a fixed structure that deteriorated with age.

Nope, not true! It appears that our brain is a very dynamic and changing organ. It develops new connections and has the ability to reorganise itself until the day we die. Our brains are incredibly changeable. The interesting part is: Because the brain is so plastic, we have the ability to influence the way it develops over time through both thought and activity.

Realizing this is incredibly empowering because you can then upgrade your brain by adopting the right mindset and behavior. You can use your conscious mind to create the right physical changes in your brain for improving your abilities and quality of life.

“We are in the early stages of a Brain Plasticity Revolution. That revolution begins with a clearer understanding that the brain’s machinery is being continually rewired and functionally revised, substantially under your control, throughout the course of your natural life. You have a remarkable built-in ability to strengthen and grow the person that you are, at any age”

Norman Doidge, M.D.

The Neuroplastic process

Okay, sounds really cool and all, but let’s unpack this with some hardcore science. The ability of the brain to reorganise itself, both in structure and how its function can be chopped up into 4 distinct processes:

  1. Neurogenesis: The continuous generation of new neurons.
  2. New Synapses: New thoughts, behavior, and experiences create new neural connections between neurons called synapses
  3. Strengthening of Synapses: Repetition and practice strengthens these neural connections.
  4. Weakening of Synapses: Neural connections that aren’t used become weaker.

As the neuroscientific saying goes: “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Every thought, action, behavior, and experience – anything that requires brain activity – fires electrical impulses through a specific group of neural connections.

Every time this neural network is activated, the neural pathways are being insulated with a tiny layer of a substance called myelin. The layering of myelin consequently increases the rate at which information (encoded as electrical impulses) is passed along the neural pathways.

That’s how you learn new things! This process is the reason why things get easier the more you do it, and how you get better at any skill. Repetition strengthens the neural network you use for a specific action, and efficiency goes up along with it.

Now, there’s another saying that goes: “Use it or lose it”. This refers back to the fourth process; the weakening of neural connections if you don’t use them. The myelinated synapses ‘wear out’ in some sense.

One of the first people to demonstrate this process was Mark Rosenzweig – a researcher at the University of California. In his experiments, he observed that rats living in a stimulating environment with other rats and toys possessed a higher amount of synapse connections compared to rats living in a bare cage. It showed that mental stimulation, or a lack of it, makes or breaks neural pathways.

The power of visualization

But it doesn’t stop there. Research has shown that the mere act of thinking somehow has a significant effect on the physical brain. As the mind changes, the brain changes.

Take the experiment done by Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School Pascual-Leanoe. Two groups of people, who had never played piano before, were assigned two very different types of piano practice. The first group practiced, for a week, a piece of music on an actual piano. The second group, however, merely imagined playing the music while sitting in front of a piano for the same amount of time.

Now, here’s the interesting part; both groups had their brain scanned (before and after the practice) and showed the same physical changes in the brain. More surprisingly, both groups showed comparable skills in playing the piano!

So, the mere visualization of a skill is able to improve performance – As their mind changed, their brain changed with it. And it turns out, that many athletes and high performers use this method to prepare themselves for when they need to perform.

We can take Michael Jordan as an example again; Just before he stepped on the basketball court for an important game, he imagined himself making the game-winning shot. He practiced the mindset of visualization to enhance his abilities for when it mattered most.

Fluid vs Crystallized intelligence

Okay, so let’s take a short detour.

It is important to make the distinction between the things you can and cannot change in your brain. As I’ve mentioned, intelligence can be enhanced through effort, constancy, and strategy. However, it is only a certain type of intelligence that can be improved.

The truth is that genes determine a substantial part of how intelligent you are. Every person is born with a certain amount of the so-called “fluid intelligence“. This type of intelligence is better known as your IQ. You can see it as the processing speed of your brain, and its ability to perceive relationships independent of previous practice.

Unfortunately, nobody has figured out to increase someone’s IQ. You are (painfully?) stuck with the amount of fluid intelligence you’ve been given at birth. With the process of aging taken into consideration, there seems to be no way to increase someone’s information processing speed.

There’s good news, however. This genetically determined feature is namely considered independent of learning, experience, and education. It’s the “crystallized intelligence” that’s responsible for the ability for the average human being to become the stuff of Legends.

As you accumulate more knowledge, practice a skill, and go through experiences, your crystallized intelligence grows stronger. This crystallization of intelligence is just a metaphor for describing the process of growing and strengthening new synapse connections and building more powerful neural networks.

In some sense, your fluid intelligence is the driving force of intelligence crystallization. It’s the kickstart of how fast you start learning a new skill or obtain new knowledge, but over time this becomes increasingly less relevant.

Your fluid intelligence might determine how fast you’re off the starting blocks. But as the saying goes; life is not a sprint, It’s a marathon. How good is your Stamina? How strong is your strategy? That is what eventually decides who finishes first.

Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

The Happiness Mind hack

“Among other things, neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basketball or master a musical instrument and that such practice changes the activity and physical aspects of specific brain areas”.

Andrew Weil

Why stop at growing your skills and increasing your knowledge? Why not use the power of neuroplasticity to also improve your subjective quality of life? That’s what many researchers in the positive psychology field asked themselves. And they’ve found the biology applies here as well.

Studies from numerous international Universities scientifically validated a method to increase overall life satisfaction and happiness: ‘Practicing gratitude’. The researchers asked all participants to write in a daily journal about what they were grateful for in their lives, and why.

Over time, their levels of positive emotions increased. What’s more, their levels of negative emotions like envy, greed, and resentment decreased. These studies prove there to be a strong association between gratitude and a person’s subjective well-being.

And it makes sense. Practicing gratitude makes people focus on what they have, instead of what they lack. Being grateful for something is just another combination of active neural connections that can be strengthened through repetition.

I’ve run this experiment on myself as well. For the last three months, I’ve been keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ – writing down 3 things I’m grateful for every morning. I can honestly say that I notice myself realising more often the things that go well in my life throughout the day. And seeing the results, I think its a habit worth trying by anyone…

Of course, this is not something you can train to indefinitely remove negative emotions from your life. Genuinely bad things happen to people with no reason to be grateful for. However, cultivating the ability to focus on the good things is an incredibly powerful skill to have for making hard times more bearable and easier to bounce back from.

Let’s recap for a bit

If I did my job well, I hope you’ve realised the enormous influence you have on altering the structure and function of your brain.

By adopting a Growth Mindset, you will be making full use of the malleable nature of the brain. This way, you can learn, change and grow within every aspect of your life.

Although you’ve been given a certain amount of fixed processing speed at birth, you can improve your crystallized intelligence through sustained effort and effective strategy. So, don’t overestimate talent and IQ as factors for becoming an expert in whatever skill or discipline. It the mindset that matters.

As we’ve seen from research; when the mind changes the brain changes, and as the brain changes the mind changes. It’s a two-way synergy. So, use it wisely, and don’t take this power and control lightly.

Consciously build and strengthen the neural networks that create the best life for you. Use the power of the mind to take control of your personal growth and quality of life.

The structure of your brain is affected by everything you do, say and think. So carefully watch those aspects, as they determine what neural networks grow and become a bigger part of you.

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”

Buddha

Old Buddha was right. He observed what 21st-century neuroscience now proves: We literally become more of what we think.

So, the question is, what do you want to become?

Think about it…

Thanks for reading!

Jordy

7 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing You Will Learn About Your Brain”

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