The Frontal Cortex

Learning About Plasticity

According to some recently published research by Carol Dweck, knowing about brain plasticity makes kids smarter:

100 seventh graders, all doing poorly in math, were randomly assigned to workshops on good study skills. One workshop gave lessons on how to study well. The other taught about the expanding nature of intelligence and the brain.

The students in the latter group “learned that the brain actually forms new connections every time you learn something new, and that over time, this makes you smarter.”

Basically, the students were given a mini-neuroscience course on how the brain works. By the end of the semester, the group of kids who had been taught that the brain can grow smarter, had significantly better math grades than the other group.

“When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections,” Dweck says. “When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing.”

Dweck says this new mindset changed the kids’ attitude toward learning and their willingness to put forth effort. Duke University psychologist, Steven Asher, agrees. Teaching children that they’re in charge of their own intellectual growth motivates a child to work hard, he says.

The moral of this data seems obvious: we should be teaching our 1st graders about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. The brain is a remarkably malleable organ, and it’s time schoolchildren know about it.


  1. #1 Brian
    February 16, 2007

    I’m surprised this is making such big waves, as these conclusions have been supported by previous psychology research.

    I think it was HW Stevenson, SY Lee, and JW Stigler in 1986 that did a comparison study of American, Japanese, and Chinese children and their relative math performance.

    One of the cultural differences they found was a marked difference in how innate math skills were perceived to be. In other words, those students raised in cultures where math skills were considered innate performed poorly compared to students raised in cultures in which math skills are able to be developed.

    20 years later, and one of the most interesting and obvious implications of that study (I thought) is just now getting media attention?

  2. #2 Brian
    February 16, 2007

    Just a minor correction, but “…cultures in which math skills are able to be developed,” ought to read “… cultures in which math skills are thought to be able to be developed.”

  3. #3 Dr. Evil
    February 16, 2007

    Watch out world! My 7th grader is already doing great in math and after I discuss this with him, he will grow to rule the world! Bwa Ha Ha Ha!

  4. #4 apy
    February 16, 2007

    Looking at cognitive behavior therapy, one seems to be able to take a hold of the power of plasticity and help them work their way out of a depression. This is really cool, but I’d like to know, does this mean one could learn how to think more like a genius? And by that I mean certain people have unique ways of looking at the world that seems to help them identify problems and solutions, if one could some how train their brain to think similarly about the world could we essentially help people be much better/cleverer problem solvers? This may be far fetched but the idea sounds intriguing to me, someone who’s always trying to become better at solving problems.

  5. #5 katherine sharpe
    February 16, 2007

    I thought this research was fascinating, too. D’joo see my post over at Page 3.14 yesterday?

  6. #6 David Harmon
    February 16, 2007

    Apy: This can work a little bit, but there are natural limits.

    To start with your depression example, CBT alone works for mild depressions, but for more serious cases, you commonly need medication first, to get the person together enough to manage the therapy. Then you can teach them how to break the accumulated thought-habits that would otherwise tend to reinforce the depression.

    Similarly, if someone learns mathematical skills early and well, they become “automatic”, a tool that can be used for understanding other things while the innumerate is struggling with “doing the math”. Much the same can apply to reading and other language skills, and even social capacities.

    At the same time, some differences in thought patterns are more fundamental. Some part of my own intellectual abilities derive from my Non-Verbal Learning Disability, a mild form of autism. I’m not sure that could be taught, and frankly dubious that it should be. ;-) On the other hand, the basic “early and often” method works pretty well in setting a kid up for “normally” good reading skills.

    Then too there’s the issue that plasticity is greatest during childhood — as people get older, it gets progressively harder to pull any of this sort of stuff….

  7. #7 David Harmon
    February 16, 2007


    I guess this is basically a scientific demonstration of that old proverb: “Argue for your limitations, and you get to keep them”.