Hi, my name is Eric Wargo and I’m a new science writer here at NIDA. Before coming to NIDA, I wrote for an association of psychological scientists, people who study all aspects of the mind and human behavior. I was excited to come to NIDA, because NIDA scientists study the brain, and the brain is at the root of everything we humans do.
The brain is almost like magic: It has the ability to transform thoughts and feelings into real physical actions and physical states like health or illness. And something as simple as an idea or a belief can have a real effect on your well-being or how well you do in school or in your relationships. I’ve always been especially interested in ways people can improve themselves—and even achieve many of the things some people seek through drugs—through activities that change their brains. SBB asked me to write some guest columns on this topic. I hope you enjoy them!
Learning Changes the Brain
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know all about how drugs change the brain. But lots of things besides drugs change the brain, and lots of those brain changes are good.
Learning is the #1 positive thing that changes your brain. Something as small as a new experience or learning a new word rapidly creates or reinforces new connections between neurons, even hundreds or thousands of them, in real time. You aren’t exactly the same person now, after reading the last sentence, as you were before you read it—because your brain changed a little.
And guess what—just knowing that fact can actually make you smarter.
Challenge Your Mindset
A few years ago, I was blown away when I heard a really amazing lecture by a psychologist named Carol Dweck. She has studied how people’s “mindsets”—specifically the beliefs they hold about whether someone’s intelligence is changeable—have a strong effect on how well they succeed in school and in life. People who think that intelligence is just something you are born with (or not) don’t apply themselves as much when it comes to learning. Even if they are told they are smart, they may not try as hard and actually may not ultimately achieve as much or handle challenges as well as those who believe that smartness depends mainly on how much effort they put in.
Dweck tested this idea with junior high school students. It can be a tough period in life, as you may have found out yourself. A lot of kids who were happy and did well in elementary school suffer setbacks when they hit junior high—they become frustrated and unhappy and stressed, and where they were once good students, they suddenly see their grades go down. In one study, Dweck and a couple of her colleagues found that students who held the “intelligence is changeable” mindset were more motivated to learn and actually performed better in math over the course of 7th and 8th grades than did those who believed their intelligence was a permanent, fixed quantity.
So Dweck and her team designed an intervention to help students whose math grades were falling. Over the course of 8 weeks, a group of these students were taught about how the brain works, including the way learning actually builds new and stronger connections between neurons and how the brain is like a muscle that can be strengthened through the exercise of learning. A comparison group also learned about the brain and study skills but without the emphasis on the brain’s changeability.
You can probably guess what happened: The students who learned about how their brains change actually reversed their plummeting math grades—they started doing better! Those who were not exposed to this idea continued doing poorly in math. (Dweck has now taken her intervention, called “Brainology,” and developed it for use by schools and teachers.)
The bottom line: Mindsets are super-powerful in setting people either on a path to success or on a path to something less. People who (correctly) believe their brains change go farther, do more, and adapt better to life’s challenges. So help spread the word to your peers: Your brain changes and you can choose how you change it.
Next time, I’ll talk about some cool things you can do to change and hone your brain.
Eric Wargo writes about the brain and addiction for NIDA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology, and in his spare time, he writes and blogs about science, history, movies, and other cool topics.