The Science of Personal Development: The Foundation of Self-Development, Part II

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Brain page 368

“We know the brain is like a muscle.
If you train it the right way, you can increase its capacity.”
Sophia Vinagradov, Neuroscientist (4)

The Foundation of Self-Development: Can I Change?

This is the second in a series of posts outlining the research regarding our ability to dramatically improve many aspects of our nature – physical, emotional and mental abilities – through determined effort.

Part I. The Growth Mindset

Part II. The Science of Personal Development (this post)

Part III. Stories from the Frontlines of Growth

Part II: The Science of Personal Development

In the previous post, we delved into research on the significant impact your mindset about your potential to grow your abilities has on your life. Those with a growth mindset – who believe their skills and attributes can be built through determined effort – have greater levels of success, are more resilient in the face of setbacks, are more willing to take risks to achieve something they find deeply meaningful and more readily learn from mistakes than their fixed minded counterparts. However, not only does the growth mindset result in better outcomes, it is soundly supported by our understanding of the human brain and the study of world class expertise. In this post, we’ll outline what is happening biologically when you use and grow your abilities and explain the steps you can take to harness this information to build your skills more effectively. 

For much of the twentieth century, scientists believed that the brain was like a machine. After a period of rapid development in infancy and slower development until sometime in our twenties, the brain-machine was believed complete and at the height of its ability. The rest of life, then, was the gradual wearing out of the brain-machine, resulting in senility for most people in their final years of life. Thankfully, this grim picture has been soundly overturned by neuroscience research into brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to change throughout life. It turns out that the decline of the brain is much more a description of how we have used it, rather than an accurate story of its potential.  

Our actions, feelings and thoughts are controlled by our nervous system, an intricate web of neurons, or nerve cells, spread throughout the body. The neurons are electrically-excitable cells that can communicate with each other via electrical and chemical signals across synapses, the connections between neurons. Every action, feeling and thought is the result of signals sent across neural networks in your brain and (in some cases) down the spinal cord and into the body. You receive sensory input in much the same way, only the signals travel in reverse. The nervous system, then, is like a highway of neurons, over which information travels in the form of nerve signals.

As in an actual highway system, there are multiple pathways a nerve signal can take. Acquiring skills and abilities is the process of finding an effective route for the information to travel and then building the highway, from a meandering path in the woods to a multi-lane superhighway. When in learning mode, the brain pays attention to see if a particular attempted action has the desired outcome. If it does, it wraps that neural pathway in a substance called myelin. The more myelin insulation a particular pathway has, the stronger signal strength, speed and accuracy across that path. Such robust impulses lead to faster reactions and more precise actions. “A sluggish, unreliable circuit [or route] means a sluggish unreliable movement; on the other hand a fast, synchronous circuit means a fast, synchronous movement” (1). 

rabbit ears

Think about when you learned to tie your shoes. At first it was incredibly hard, both to remember which action to take (“loop it and swoop it”) and to actually perform the action. But, over the course of a few weeks, it became easier to remember the process and more automatic to perform. Now, you likely pause to tie your shoe without diverting any conscious attention to the task. That’s the power of myelin.

When you were learning to tie your shoe, your nervous system first had to find the right pathway. As you practiced repeatedly and monitored for errors, the pathway that worked best was slowly building its myelin insulation. Impulses that initially traveled a mere two miles per hour, gradually sped up to around two hundred miles per hour (1), as thick myelin walls did the neural equivalent of leveling, paving, broadening and lighting the route. 

If you’d like to remember how it feels to tie a shoe by taking a pre-myelin path, just switch the roles each hand performs. You’ll see that the process reverts back to your conscious processor so it can monitor for mistakes. It is difficult to know exactly what to do and your fingers feel clumsy as you attempt the action. 

It is true that our brains have more potential for development when we are young. Beginning at birth, our brains are in the critical period, during which the brain’s “learning mode” switch is turned to “ON.” The brain is always alert to ways to strengthen connections based on all of the data coming in. After all, it has a lot of work to do in order to acquire language abilities, motor control, understanding of social dynamics and so on. 

As we age, the brain’s learning mode is mostly switched to “OFF.” According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, this is a good thing. “If the adult brain made enduring changes based on everything it sensed, certain experiences would be grossly and highly inappropriately overrepresented in the brain. As an example, since most of us spend a lot of time sitting down, an enormous area in our brains would become dedicated to information from our fannies!” (3)

However, what proponents of the machine-brain hypothesis failed to understand is that we can turn the switch back to “ON” throughout our lives. When the switch is on, we build myelin and strengthen connections. When we build myelin, we build skills, which can be physical, emotional or mental. Even more exciting, it has also been shown that the brain can learn new pathways to a certain action. So, even in the cases of brain injury or disease, we have the opportunity to flip the learning mode switch to “ON” and acquire or re-acquire a skill by the same process we used to learn everything in life: finding an effective neural pathway and wrapping it in myelin. This is how stroke victims are able to regain lost abilities. 

Unfortunately, because most people do not know how to flip the switch back to “ON” or do not believe it is possible, they often never make serious attempts to build, strengthen or maintain skills. Thus, the gradual decline of the brain over the latter half of our lives. Rather than maintain robust abilities, we seek to compensate, or avoid, things that give us difficulty. As a result, our abilities atrophy. Much of what we think of as declines due to aging are actually declines due to misuse.  

The brain is a process, not an outcome. Crucial to continuing the process throughout our lives is an understanding of how to switch the brain into learning mode. Here’s how it works (1)(3):

1. Pay careful attention. Alert, focused attention tells the brain it is in learning mode. The more focused you are, the more your brain will be looking to record successful outcomes. If you want to learn something or improve your skills, do not multitask. 

2. Focus on a goal. When you have a clear goal, the brain knows exactly what to look for. It can record successes and search for different pathways following failures. 

3. Harness emotion. Emotion is a powerful tool for building myelin. When you respond very positively to an outcome, the brain understands this outcome to not only be successful, but also particularly important, and so it will build more myelin. Allow yourself to celebrate successes. Also be wary that when the brain experiences extreme negative emotion, it will record that as well. If you make a traumatic or scary mistake, make a second attempt as soon as possible so your brain does not imprint strong avoidant behavior for that particular task.

Using focus, goals and emotion, you can switch the brain into learning mode. But how do you learn something new? 

Ironically, the key to learning something new is to embrace failure. Daniel Coyle, who studied expert performance and how to achieve it for his book, The Talent Code, says that success “is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you are forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.” (1) In other words, find the neural pathway that works, and then begin building myelin. 

Unfortunately, society trains us to avoid failure. When we are infants, the world celebrates our attempts: to talk, to walk, to use the bathroom by ourselves. However, as we age, the tide turns and society begins to punish our failure: when we spill a drink, drop a dish, make a mistake in school, misspeak. All of that pressure to avoid mistakes works against our innate ability to build skills. Coyle’s research reveals that the sweet spot for improving or acquiring skills is to practice at the point where you are failing 20-50% of the time (2). That means that if you are trying to improve your skiing abilities, for example, you’d be falling once out of every two to five runs. And yet most of us just seek to avoid falling altogether. 

Individuals with a growth mindset focus on building the physical, emotional and mental skills they need to do the work, build the relationships and seek the experiences they find deeply meaningful and engaging. In so doing, they harness the power of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow and rewire itself throughout our lifetime. With intense focus, clear goals and invested emotions, they continually push themselves slightly beyond where they have been before. The brain, in turn, responds by finding new neural pathways to complete the action and then goes about building a myelin superhighway so the action becomes effortless, precise and repeatable.

Recommended Books

(1) D. Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How

(2) D. Coyle, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

(3) M. Merzenich, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life

(4) B. Arrowsmith-Young, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation

(5) N. Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

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