Smart Strategy: Think of the Brain as a Muscle

Students who are told they can get smarter if they train their brains to be stronger, like a muscle, do better in school, a new psychology study shows.

Many people have various theories about the nature of intelligence. Some view it as a fixed trait, while others see intelligence as a quality that can develop and expand.

These ideas have can have a profound effect on the motivation to learn, said researcher Carol Dweck, a child and social psychologist at Stanford University.

"Those who follow a fixed theory are concerned with whether they look smart or dumb. They don't enjoy tasks that are difficult, where if they have a setback they can look dumb," Dweck explained. "Those who think intelligence is something you can cultivate are much more interested in being challenged than in just looking smart. They are much more resilient and persistent, and not as worried about making mistakes."

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Dweck had an experience in 6th grade in Brooklyn that made her want to understand with views people held on intelligence.

"My teacher seated us around the room in IQ order," she told LiveScience. "All the responsibilities were assigned to high-IQ students. Looking back, I always enjoyed learning before, but the experience in that class wasn't about learning, it was about feeling like you had to always look smart or get demoted to one of the lesser seats."

"Working in that fixed framework had a profound influence on me," Dweck said. "It was one where intelligence was equated with worth."

To see what effects different theories of intelligence had on schoolwork, Dweck and her colleagues followed 373 New York City 12-year-olds over a course of two years of junior high school. While all the students began the study with roughly the same math achievement test scores, those with a fixed mindset did worse in math, with the gap widening over the years.

"When you have a fixed view, you kind of run away from mistakes and setbacks, since you think they mean you're not smart," Dweck said. "The fixed view doesn't give students a good way to repair their deficiencies. If you believe your ability is permanently fixed, and you don't do well, there's no good route to come back from that."

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The researchers then took junior high school students who did poorly in math and divided them into two groups. Both were introduced to workshops that built study skills, but one experimental group also went through an eight-week program that described the brain as like a muscle, "and the more it was used, the stronger it got," Dweck said.

"We taught them that the brain forms new connections every time they applied themselves and learned," she explained. "It gave them a new model of how their minds worked, and how they had control of their brains and could make it work better. The idea is to free them from the tyranny of fear of looking dumb. The name of the game is learning."

The experimental group showed a significant rebound in math grades, the researchers report in the latest issue of the journal Child Development.

"There was one particular boy who we couldn't get to sit still, yet when he started hearing about the brain and how you can make neurons grow, we thought we saw tears in his eyes. He looked up at us and said, 'You mean I don't have to be dumb?'" Dweck recalled.

"From that day forward he applied himself to schoolwork," she said. "He was one of the first students the teachers mentioned as never doing homework before, but who now brought it in early to get it checked over. He was studying for tests and moving his grades from Cs and Ds to B+."

Dweck and her colleagues have developed a computer-based version of their workshop they have now tried out in 20 New York City schools. "We still have to upgrade the technology and revise it based on feedback from students, but it was really a great success," Dweck said. "We're really excited about making this more available."

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