Neuroscience has Debunked this Toxic Myth, but it’s still Harming us
The “fixed brain” is a concept many have internalized, but it has no basis in science. The implications are huge.
For centuries, science has made discoveries about our reality that shook up society for the better. Look no father than climate science. However, climate science is not the only field challenging entrenched social systems in our time.
In his two books The Brain that Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, Dr. Norman Doidge explores the recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, which can be loosely described as “how brains change.” Doige mostly focuses on cases of humans with either severe injuries or disabilities healing their own brains through repetitive behavior or people who’s brains have developed in aberrant ways and how that happened. In short, Doige is a medical doctor and his work focuses on healthcare the applications. Stanford professor Jo Boaler also wrote a fantastic book called Limitless Mind expanding on the discoveries Doidge is popularizing but in a different direction: the education system.
But what is the fixed brain myth? Essentially, it’s the belief that adults (or even children) cannot change how their brains work. Boaler explains how this manifests in the classroom as the idea that some people just don’t have “good math brains.” But, she informs us, this is wrong. Some people don’t just have a “good math brain” in the same way they might have a Lexus. Our brains are always changing, and always have the potential to improve greatly.
She goes farther than this and challenges the pervasive idea of “giftedness,” convincingly explaining how our embrace of this faulty idea is harming children. After all, if some children are “gifted,” what are the rest? Of course, she grounds her case in science, pointing out how it’s now established that our brains are highly capable of shifting to new modes of thinking, so much so that what we might call being “gifted” just means that such a person’s brain has developed in that direction, but it is a nurture rather than a nature phenomenon.
When a child who has been labeled as “gifted” struggles to get a right answer or makes a mistake, they experience stress related to the label adults have placed on them. They feel pressured to continually prove their giftedness. This is unhealthy. We need students to feel comfortable saying when they don’t understand something. We also need to realize that making mistakes and getting things wrong is an essential step to eventually getting them right. Obviously, when young people see their peers being labeled “gifted” but they do not receive that label, that also causes an emotional strain that makes learning more difficult. Considering all this, Boaler calls for the total abolition of separate “tracks” in schooling. She also helped start the project YouCubed, which explains the science and classroom implications of neuroplasticity and aims to popularize understanding of it to help more children learn math.
There are other areas of life where fixed brain thinking causes harm. For example, the criminal legal system. Assumptions that an individual with (say) issues of physical aggression will simply always be that way, or will be likely to unlearn this pattern in a prison setting, are false. Even people with antisocial behaviors caused by severe trauma can heal if they are given adequate help. Violent crime is largely caused by untreated trauma. As Mariame Kaba reminds us, nobody encounters violence for the first time by committing it.
Training the Brain
But how does the brain change? Doige has a catchy phrase to explain this: neurons that fire together wire together. What that means is just that our brain learns from repeated activity. We train our brains. We can train our brains in how to do anything, from learning other languages to enjoying different kinds of food. Bad patterns, such as verbal abuse, also shape our brains. However, any brain pattern that has been established can be undone. The experience of difficulty in learning something new can be frustrating, but it’s important to push through it. This experience of difficulty while learning is when our brain is making more connections.
But what about geniuses like Einstein? We don’t know everything yet, but what we know indicates that when it comes to our brains, there is no advantage nature can grant that nurture can’t catch up to in the form of neuroplastic growth. Also, interestingly, the word genius used to be used in a different, more empowering way. People used to be described as “in touch with their genius.” The idea was that everyone has a spark of inner genius they can get in touch with. The modern English usage has taken us in a less empowering, less scientifically-based direction by suggesting some people are simply born geniuses while the rest of us aren’t. Boaler enlightens the reader on how people have become “math geniuses” simply through dedicated practice. She also explores why students from Asian countries consistently score better in math. The answer lies in the teaching methods, not the genes, as some still backwardly assume.
As Boaler also delves into, some people are VERY emotionally attached to the idea of a fixed brain. She talks about STEM academics in particular, but the problem extends beyond that. Some popular misunderstanding is understandable given that neuroscience promoted the idea of the fixed brain in adults until the past couple of decades. However the apparently deep emotional connection some people (seemingly mostly men) have to the fixed brain myth is puzzling. Perhaps they are just attached to notions of themselves being above the rest of us rabble, or maybe they feel their social position is threatened by the revelation that anyone can learn to do anything. What snobs!
The Social Implications
There is truly no good reason why anyone should want to resist the scientific conclusions. The end of the fixed brain myth can be a moment of empowerment for all of us. It not only means that anyone has the ability to be a scientist, engineer or doctor, it also means that our most mentally damaged people have the chance to recover and live fulfilling lives in a society that values everyone.
Boaler explores how students can become much better learners when they are exposed to the science of how they truly can learn to be great at anything. She calls this being “unlocked,” as opposed to having a “fixed brain mindset.” However, Boaler does not delve very deeply into how the stress of poverty and social marginalization and a lot of negative reinforcement (at home or at school) can prevent people from becoming their unlocked selves. This topic needs a lot more exploration.
Accepting that anyone can be “smart,” anyone can learn anything, and that we all have an inner genius to tap into, also means recreating much of our society. Many of our social institutions and expectations remain deeply rooted in fixed brain (if not outright Social Darwinist) assumptions. Our classrooms, our courtrooms and our boardrooms all need to be rethought and reformed. We need more behavioral therapists to help people overcome disabilities and trauma.
Undoing the harmful myth of the fixed brain will help us solve all our other social issues. Jo Boaler informs her readers that people with a fixed brain mindset not only have a harder time learning, they also are more physically aggressive. Neuroplasticity has profound social implications. Jo Boaler’s book is an amazing first look into this area but it is only scratching the surface. Armed with the knowledge of neuroplasticity, we are more able to create a truly free and equal society.
Here is an educational video on this topic featuring Dr. Norman Doige