Recently I have been participating in discussions with past and present leaders of Australian youth dance education and it has got me thinking. As new research continues to emerge about the correlations between brain neuroplasticity and thought patterns, I can’t help but relate it back to the adult learning environment we work in - the Pilates setting. There is so much emphasis currently placed on how our language and behaviors will shape our children’s learning habits and abilities. What we are failing to acknowledge is that they are also shaping our own adult learning habits and abilities. Often we are so preoccupied with the outside world that we forget that we are still learning, every day. Without a thought-out, considered approach to the way we are thinking, speaking and behaving daily, we can actually prevent ourselves from becoming successful learners.
Firstly let’s start with a bit of background.
From the late 1500’s neurologists believed the theory of localization. Localization, developed by astronomer Galileo Galilei, was the theory that the entire universe and all of its living things functioned like a well-oiled machine, or a large clock, thus mechanically. This meant that everything had a specific place and a specific function and if something in that machine broke, it could not be replaced. This theory was applied to the human brain; assuming that if you lost function to a part of your body through an accident, the area of your brain controlling that part of your body was permanently damaged and your condition was therefore untreatable.
As research has continued to delve deeper in the function of the brain, it has been proven that this theory is wrong.. We now know that the brain is a living thing that evolves depending on its circumstances and the information provided to it. It can be trained and exercised. We know that the brain is constantly remapping itself through the staggering magnitude of synaptic connections that form the neural network. The more often neurons fire in close proximity to one another, the more likely a connection is made, often fusing their functional properties. This concept of developing new neural networks is known as neuroplasticity. It refers to the constant rewiring and changing of the brain’s organisation and has quickly become a widespread hot topic in the medical and education sectors.
Neuroplasticity highlights two important points.
Firstly, if we choose not to exercise certain parts of our brain, we see that those neurons are taken up by new information and the old information is forgotten or lost. Can you remember your final year of high school mathematics? The saying ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ rings true here.
Secondly, knowing the brain is adapting to its circumstances instils an accountability in us for the information we choose to put into our brain. To create change in our brain, we have to change the way we move and think. In an ever-changing brain, our thoughts have consequences and can either positively or negatively rewire parts of our brain to have us believing certain truths. This blog focuses on the second point, specifically looking at how mindsets play a role in impacting neuroplasticity and brain development.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University first coined the term mindsets, to demonstrate how we view ourselves and the impact those thoughts have on our ability to succeed.
A fixed mindset is the belief that ability is fixed - you either have it or you don’t. People in a fixed mindset believe that qualities such as talent or intelligence are traits that cannot be improved or changed. They focus on documenting their talent or intelligence rather than developing it. They often experience fear of failure and will stop trying altogether to avoid failing. Their neuroplasticity is minimal, as their mindset and wiring takes on a pattern of avoidance and as a result they find themselves just getting by, doing the same things day in and day out. Often, they can be operating in survival mode, in a fight, flight or freeze state of being.
A growth mindset is the belief that ability is something you develop with dedication and hard work. Qualities such as talent and intelligence are developed according to the effort that is put in. People in a growth mindset aren’t afraid to try because they aren’t afraid to fail. They realise that failure equates to learning something. They develop resilience which carries them through to greater accomplishment. Their neuroplasticity is constant, as they develop new skills and acquire new knowledge. This in turn gives them confidence to seek new opportunities, thrive in challenging circumstances and is overall an enriched environment for optimal brain health.
Can you recognise areas in your life where you may have fallen into a fixed mindset? Are there things you don’t attempt because you don’t want to FAIL at them? Fear of failure breeds a fixed mindset. It can prevent you from trying new things or even stop you from doing things you loved as a child as you develop into adulthood.
Here are some five simple tools for helping identify a fixed mindset and turning it into a growth mindset.
As with any bad habit (because let’s be honest a fixed mindset is a bad habit you’ve allowed your brain to learn) awareness is the first step towards change. Being aware and noticing aspects of yourself that might suggest a fixed mindset. Do you avoid trying new things? Are you afraid of being bad at something? Do you actively look for tasks that you’ve done before and know you will succeed in again? Do you struggle to take constructive criticism from peers or colleagues? When somebody else does well at work or around you do you feel inspired to try harder, or are you a little bitter at their success because of their natural abilities that you simply don’t have? These hints might suggest a fixed mindset in at least one area of your life.
Did you know that your brain can’t tell the difference between reality and simulation? This is one of the reasons that visualisation is so beneficial and meditation has become a major part of many peoples lives. Visualisation helps us to picture the way we want something to be, in the present moment. It allows us to have our own ‘ideal situation’ right now, rather than hoping or wishing for it in the future. If you feel a block in your mindset or start to have thoughts that you can’t or won’t do something, take 5 mins out to stop and visualise yourself doing that very thing. Ensure your visualisation is detailed and as close to real life as you can imagine, all the while envisioning yourself in the present moment doing that task or having the conversation, confidently and with ease.
Watch your language
The language you use plays a big role in how your brain processes your thoughts and patterns your behaviours. Be aware of using words like ‘can’t’, ‘impossible’, and ‘never’ as they pattern your brain to believe that you can’t or won’t ever be capable which is just not true. Improvement and success comes with effort and everyone can put in effort. My favourite word is ‘yet’. So if I catch myself mid sentence saying “oh I’ve never been able to do that!” I quickly add ..”yet” to remind myself that with the right focus and enough effort, I am capable of changing that.
Change your motivation/re-focus your intent
In order to change your mind set, your focus of what’s important needs to shift. Effort and hard work should trump getting the task perfectly right every time. As soon as your focus is placed on the outcome not the process, you are literally setting yourself up for failure (the thing we fear most and are trying to avoid in the first place!) To shift your focus, you need to realise what motivates you to do the task at hand, what is your intent?
Praise your efforts/ The ‘I AM’ approach
If you rely too much on other peoples praise, you end up stuck in a fixed mindset because you are constantly relying on an outside source for your worthiness or success. Instead of focusing on the task at hand you end up chasing praise or not trusting your own judgement. In Sigourney’s recent workshop she talked a lot about ‘I AM’ affirmations. I AM affirmations are excellent because they exist in the present moment and they help you to refocus your intent. ‘I am capable of…’ ‘I am successful…’ are great affirmations to help bring your success and efforts into the present moment and not be something you are always trying to attain in the future.
Next time you notice yourself shying away from a new task, take the time to switch the focus up. What is so good about doing it perfectly the first time anyway? Maybe it would be fun to give something new a try? Just imagine the neuroplasticity and nourishment it will give your brain and all the while you will be growing and develop a new skill!
Images courtesy of: International Spine and Pain Institute, Stanford University, Big-Change.Org and The Awkward Yeti.