Most of us may have moved beyond our antiquated belief in fixed intelligence, but in our not-too-distant cultural wake, we see an era obsessed with categorizing people based on intellectual capacity.
Some might argue that we haven’t moved beyond this obsession — a fair point — but it is clear that our cultural beliefs about the ability to improve intelligence have changed. This transition to a more nuanced perspective on intelligence was a slow, yet momentous one, owning its success largely to discoveries made in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. But our zealotry toward the improvement of intellectual capacities has come with its own pernicious consequences.
Even if we aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the process itself, we’ve likely been exposed to the concept of “neuroplasticity.” It’s become a buzzword in recent years, and rightfully so. The idea that our brains can reshape themselves — by reorganizing, adapting and growing new connections well into our adult lives, is a motivating thought. If nothing else, it gives some added empirical weight to the merit of long hours of work as students.
This discovery, that our brains can actually change and improve in response to experience, has had a profound impact on the field of psychology. Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist and author of “Mindset,” wrote about effects of having a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. To summarize the terms, a “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence and creative ability are static, whereas a “growth mindset” sees challenge and failure not as evidence of a lack of intelligence, but as opportunities for growth and for improving our existing abilities. Dweck’s promotion of this “growth mindset,” in tandem with our current understanding of neurobiology, lends further weight to the notion that intelligence is something we develop, rather than something we are merely born with.
When we take in this kind of information, about our ability to grow and improve, it would seem a logical next step to ride our new perspective into a better, more intelligent form of ourselves. But as many have found out, knowing that you can improve doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up where you intended to be.
Classical languages senior Scott Walker describes his struggle to maintain balance and motivation with a growth mindset.
“Every time I’d start up a new routine, I’d go strong for the first week or so. I’d feel like a machine.” Walker said. “But eventually I’d lose sight of why I was pushing forward with such zeal. It would feel like I was being productive merely for its own sake, and I would start to realize how much I had blocked out of my life. And then I’d lose interest and find myself right back where I started.”
The issue isn’t with the growth mindset itself, but rather the pitfalls that open when growth is placed as the highest value. Humans are complex and multifaceted. And when we close our focus to improving only narrow aspects of ourselves — with our packed calendars, tasks lists and productivity obsessions — we run the risk of neglecting other parts of ourselves, parts that nourish our motivation to improve in the first place.
Hadley is a faculty member in biology and a BS ‘15 in neuroscience from Southlake.