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The brain and mindset

Carol Dweck thinks that we need to present people with information on the brain and its huge potential. Doing this will help people to adopt a growth mindset. This is because it provides people with evidence for the process going on in the brain when they learn.

The brain

The brain weighs 1,300 - 1,400 grams and is made up from 1 billion neurons and has four lobes, the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes, which help us to do, think, and feel  things. All of the brain areas are connected and there are different areas which help us to carry out specific functions.  For example, the occipital lobes, at the back of the brain, help us to process the things we see.   If this area is damaged or removed we lose the ability to consciously see, or we may view a rather distorted image of the world. For example, there are very specific areas of the brain which respond to specific things, such as faces.  If these very specific areas are damaged then we can no longer see people's faces and have great difficulty in recognising people.  The other lobes carry out important functions too.  For example, the frontal lobes are used for complex thinking such as planning, reasoning, problem solving and for speech.  The Parietal lobes are used to process touch, pressure, temperature and pain.  The temporal lobes are used to process sound and to comprehend language. 

What does this mean for mindsets?

It was once thought that the brain becomes fixed at an early age and no new connections are made. This has cultivated a belief that it is very difficult for people to change and that people pretty much stay the same for the rest of their lives. Another misconception is that the brain cannot not re learn to do things after trauma such as learn to speak after a stroke. Recent research shows that the brain's capacity to grown, learn and rewire itself is huge.  This means that people who have suffered damage to certain areas can improve their performance e.g. stroke victims can learn to speak and move again and the average person can learn to do new things.   Studies reveal that the brain can be boosted, or at least improved, by the application of certain interventions. This is supported by the evidence gained from studying people who play music: practicing and learning music has a physical effect on the brain.  For example, musicians have auditory centres that are bigger than normal.   The 'sound' area of the brain grew through practising, and learning about, music. 

How do these areas get bigger?

All of the areas of the brain like sound, vision, and problem-solving are made of cells called neurons.  Neurons transmit information all around the brain.  The reason musicians have a larger auditory area in their brain is because they grow lots more neuron connections in the sound area.  This growth occurs through lots and lots of practice, learning and effort.  Though the brain does not get bigger, it does get heavier.  An intriguing finding from the study of songbirds is that each day these birds add 1% to their brain in order to learn a new song.  Each time we learn something new connections are being made, and this connection can be strengthened.  Just like lifting weights builds muscles, learning creates brain mass and deep learning.

To find out more about how the brain learns researchers have studied rats.  They compared rats in cages with lots of stimulation and rats in boring cages with nothing to do.  Those who were in stimulating cages were busy exploring and learning, while the other rats had nothing to do.  What the researchers found was that the busy rats had brains that were 10 % heavier and had many more connections between brain cells than the 'bored' rats.  These rats had become more intelligent - they did better on spatial memory tests.  They also found that older rats could learn too, which supports the idea that learning can occur across the life span.
Another study examined the brains of taxi drivers in London, and compared them with non taxi drivers.  What they found was that the hippocampus, which deals with three dimensional spacial memory, was bigger in the taxi drivers compared to the non taxi drivers.  They also found that the longer the taxi driver was on the job, the bigger that brain region became.

More on the neuroscience of learning

The homunculus, latin for 'little man', is used to describe the relative amount of space our body parts occupy in the brain, on the somatosensory cortex (sensory homunculus) and the motor cortex (motor homunculus) There are some parts are much bigger because we use them much more, or with more accuracy.  For example the hands are bigger because we use them a lot.

Research found that people who learned to play the piano, had a bigger sensory motor area of the brain which represents fingers.  The more we use a part of our body, the more space our brain needs to control or interpret it. In fact, by learning the brain may have to change the space it uses to account for new abilities. When people leanred to play the piano, the finger actually grew. 

The findings from neuroscience support Carol Dwecks theory that we can improve and get better at things through hard work and effort.  Brains of babies have relatively few connections, but as they grow they develop more connections.  Babies are not born intelligent, they learn.  This applys to adults and old people too, The brain is making new connections until the day we die.  You can teach an old dog new tricks, but the key to this is a mindset that they can do it.


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