What can you accomplish by cultivating a growth mindset? Well, the short answer is: anything you want. If there’s an area of learning or skill that you are interested in, you can learn, grow, and improve your skills if you apply a growth mindset.
Whether you want to improve your intellectual skills in logic, math, rhetoric or astrophysics; develop your creativity in music, drawing, writing, or film; or boost your athletic ability on the court, on the trail, or on the yoga mat, you can improve in any area you wish.
To understand why this is true, it’s helpful to know the concept of neural plasticity.
The human brain has around 100 billion neurons, which are a special kind of nerve cell. These neurons connect to each other through connection points called synapses to make around 100 trillion connections.
This vast network of neurons controls everything about our bodies and minds, from our digestion and breathing to our mental functions such as memory, knowledge, thoughts, and emotions. Crucially, this neural network allows us to take in information, process it, remember it, and make new connections between things we know (animals with big teeth can bite) and new things we encounter for the first time (I’ve never seen that animal before, but it’s got big teeth! Run!).
Up until a few decades ago, scientists believed that the neurons in our brains grew rapidly in childhood, but then stopped growing as we reach maturity. The lack of new neural growth, it was thought, limited how much adults could learn and change in later life. In essence, the scientific understanding of our brain was, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
However, recent developments in neuroscience have completely changed this understanding. With new tools that allow us to look inside the brain, scientists have discovered that neurons can grow and change throughout our lives. For example, after a stroke, humans can relearn skills such as walking, speaking, and fine hand movements, even if the original part of the brain that controls that function is damaged. The ability of our brains to change and grow is known as neural plasticity.
One moving example of neural plasticity is that of actor Christopher Reeve, known for his role as Superman. Reeve turned out to be a real-life Superman after a horse-riding accident left him a quadriplegic. Before Reeve, the established medical wisdom was that people with spinal cord injuries might continue to improve and regain some function for months after their accident, but, by around two years post-accident, no more improvement would be possible. Reeve, however, was determined to beat the odds.
Shortly after his accident, Reeve began physical therapy. Around five years after his accident, he regained the ability to move his index finger. Inspired, he began even more intensive training. While he would never walk or gain control over some parts of his body, he was able to dramatically improve his health and regain some movement and sensation.
Perhaps most importantly, his example opened up new avenues of research. Scientists have since built on these early findings and are making great strides in helping people with spinal cord injuries regain function, sensation and movement.
While Christopher Reeve might be an extreme example, his story illustrates an important truth: we can learn and grow at any age. In other words, a growth mindset isn’t just a nice idea; it’s the scientific truth of how our brains work. No matter what you wish to improve, with strategic effort, growth and learning is possible.