Promiscuous Facts

The Slippery Science of Brain Studies

How Neuroscience Can Help You Get Smarter

What you read about your brain affects how you use it.

One of the holy grails of neuroscience research is a brain experiment that shows us how to live better and teaches us how to think better. From the Bell Curve to PET scans, we hope that studies of our neurology and psychology will guide us in designing our society too. Using the latest findings about the brain to raise your child is the latest prize in this search.

One of the most fascinating articles in neuroscience I've read recently was "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids", by Carol Dweck. This article discusses a set of research projects by Dweck and others on how different views of intelligence held by children affect their school performance. Those kids with a "fixed mindset" think that intelligence is innate and those kids with a "growth mindset" think that you intelligence is something you improve through working hard. What Dweck found is that kids with the fixed mindset gave up when they encountered really hard problems, apparently because they imagined they had hit their plateau; if they were really talented, then the problems would have been easy. Growth-oriented kids, however, treat difficult problems as opportunities to improve their intelligence. Not surprisingly, growth-oriented kids continue to improve in school.

Here's the kicker: you can change a child's mindset by having them read neuroscience, but choose it carefully! Dweck did an experiment where she gave one group of kids regular instruction and another group instruction plus an article about how neurons continue to grow throughout life and can be encouraged to grow through effort. Those kids who read this article tended to adopt the growth mindset, and do better than the other kids. This is neurosci-therapy, akin to bibliotherapy where psychologists have clients read books to improve their outlook. Our faith in neuroscience gives these findings the ability to change our minds (and maybe our brains).

Dweck has been researching and promoting this outlook for years. Dweck has a book, Mindset, and may or may not be finishing a software program (called Brainology) that takes this idea further, allowing kids to play with a simulated brain and watch neurons grow, further cementing a growth mindset.

Most of the discussion online about Dweck's work is concerned with the robustness of her findings and whether she is careful enough to distinguish intelligence from schoolwork. Many psychologists think that intelligence is one of the most innate and fixed parts of our minds, based upon many of their tests which show that it doesn't change much as you age. But perhaps their project is a bit circular in that the very act of giving someone a "test of their intelligence" encourages them to adopt a fixed mindset! Feel free to delve into Dweck's work and the intelligence debates if you want to form a proper opinion about them.

Which brings us the kicker to the kicker. We may wish that neuroscientists could run an experiment which would settle once and for all whether intelligence can be improved or not. But to do that we'd have to figure out what we really want intelligence to mean, especially for our kids. And that turns out to be precisely the problem. Both fixed and growth perspectives have good points, but they disagree on what is worth measuring and for what reasons. And each article you read reinforces one notion or the other. This is a scientific deadlock, and Dweck is suggesting a radical view: choose the neuroscience you read to fit the society you want to live in.

The real lesson for me here is that every bit of neuroscience you read potentially pushes you to adopt a particular mindset. Not just about intelligence and performance, but society, relationships, addiction, sexuality, aggression, etc. We need to pay close attention to this neuroscience-feedback. And this isn't all that different from choosing to watch CNN or FoxNews or IndyMedia -- where they each show facts, but which facts they show and how they are framed, helps to reinforce a particular view of the world.

I didn't expect it to be such a short circuit in neuroscience. But I do know what I'm going to teach my son about his brain.

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Joseph Dumit, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and Director of Science & Technology Studies at UC Davis. He is the author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans in Biomedical America.

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