Neuroscience lessons to foster a growth mindset

Our nervous systems are responsible for everything that we experience as human beings, right from birth to death. This makes us the most experience-dependent species that has ever existed. Neuroscientists uncovering this dominant system believe that everything in our experience is an abstraction of the world around us. 


The brain carries the software to create an abstract representation of things that we are able to (mostly) agree on; like the meaning of certain words or events in the natural world. The convergence of our unique abstractions is what neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman describes as one of the most profound features of our life experience. Our understanding of these intuitive rules is what creates a shared meaning. But there are some rules that are less obvious, like the hidden value of good habits and the neuroscience behind a growth mindset.


The neuroscience of growth and fixed mindsets.

In her groundbreaking research, psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University set out to investigate why people fail. In one experiment, students were given a series of puzzles to solve ranging from easy to difficult. Much to her surprise, some kids liked failure and treated it as a learning experience. One ten year old boy yelled out - “I love a challenge”. This attitude epitomises what Carol went on to coin as a growth mindset. 


A growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure as a springboard for stretching existing abilities.


Scientists measured the electrical activity from the brain, as students confronted an error in a task. On the right, you can see students with a growth mindset have plenty of activity when facing an error, indicating a deeply engaged mind as they learn and process the error. On the left, you can see there is hardly any activity for students with a fixed mindset. 


From the fixed mindset perspective, students believed that their core intelligence was tested and they failed. In some studies, these students said they would cheat more, run from difficult situations or even find someone who did worse so that they could feel better about themselves.

What can neuroscience teach us about fostering a growth mindset?


#1. Tapping into dopamine rewards

Insight. There are two types of reward systems in the brain. Rewards that make us feel good about the present moment, which are regulated by release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and oxytocin. The other is the dopamine reward system which is secreted en-route to rewards. If you can introduce dopamine rewards in small doses, while pursuing a goal, and then claim a high reward when you reach your goal, you will form neural plasticity to reinforces the action reward circuit. 

Application. The key is not just to go through the actions. Little pulses of dopamine allow you to get that action step without the depletion it would otherwise bring. When you reach your milestones, pause, and tell yourself that you're heading in the right direction.


Lesson - Amplify the reward pathway in pursuit of goals to fortify your mental resources to accomplish things.


#2. Unlearning business as usual



Insight. Nobel prize winners Sir Henry Dale and Professor Otto Loewi showed that the neurochemical acetylcholine is naturally secreted when we pay attention to something when very specific. This acts as a spotlight in the brain, making certain connections in the brain more active, and more likely to be active than other connections. For negative connections, we can trigger a type of neuroplasticity based on the concept ‘unlearning’. 

Application. As highlighted in this HBR article, the status quo of businesses right from strategy to marketing to leadership often uses mental models that have grown obsolete. To embrace a new system, we need to pay careful attention to which mental models are no longer relevant and replace them with new models that help us achieve business goals.


Lesson - Bring heightened alertness to situations where your mental models are no longer relevant and connect them with more useful models.


#3. Sharing the power of yet

Insight. A very impactful perspective we can gift someone is the concept of ‘yet' or 'not yet'. When we give feedback, praising people for the process instead of intelligence is what builds their resilience. 

Application. Game developers partnered with the team at Stanford University to create Brain Points, a game founded on this principle of rewarding process. While a typical mathematics game rewards the outcome, this game rewards the use of effort, strategy and progress which created more sustained learning compared to standard games. 


Lesson - Praise people for their strategy, process and resilience to help build their ability to deal with new challenges.


Our nervous system does only five things and we get to choose which of these five things we experience in our world. As neuroscientists unravel the inner workings of a growth mindset, we can create new pathways to reward the process that fosters growth in our own lives, our businesses and our communities.


Vishal George is our Chief Behavioural Scientist and hosts the Wellington and Auckland Behavioural Economics Network.

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