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  • Writer's pictureBella Trenkova

Neuroscience for Agile Leadership: Neuroplasticity and Growth Mindset

This post is the second installment of the Neuroscience for Agile Leadership blog series. The article explores the scientific proof behind the Growth Mindset and the three neural mechanisms through which our brains change and learn.

Back when I was in middle school - biology was one of my favorite subjects - we were taught that:

- Brain tissue is made out of neuron cells.

- We are born with a certain number of neurons.

- Unlike most other tissues, no new neuron cells are generated after birth.

- We only lose neuron cells with age or after head trauma.

We are born with a genetically-predetermined, fixed mental capacity.

Western culture holds high regard for IQ and intellectual abilities as strong determinants for success. This correlation is deeply embedded in our education system, society as a whole, the business environment, especially in STEM-related fields such as Information Technology. Following that chain of logic, since we are constrained at birth with certain intellectual abilities, our prognosis for future success is just as constrained.

Or, at least, this is the prevailing "wisdom" of the Fixed Mindset.

The role of one's mindset (the collection of assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes) on their success was studied by Prof. Carol Dweck. Her research and findings were published in her seminal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a "fixed" theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training, and doggedness are said to have a "growth" or an "incremental" theory of intelligence (growth mindset).

In Prof. Dweck's research, children from economically and academically distressed schools, when taught by teachers with Growth Mindest, achieved phenomenal academic success significantly outpacing their peers. The difference was that the kids in the first group were treated and challenged equally and were praised for their effort, whereas the kids in the second group we taught traditionally - challenged according to their own abilities and praised for their achievement.

Dweck's research challenges the common belief that intelligent people are born smart.

If we believe that we can learn and grow for life, we achieve success that we never preconceived possible.

The Growth Mindset theory has been widely adopted by Agile Coaches and Leaders. The theory, despite originally being based on research in a quite different field of K-12 Education, supports the core Agile principles for failing fast, learning from failure, experimentation, and pushing the boundaries of the known. There is already a trove of articles and books written on the subject of how adopting the Agile mindset is, in essence, embracing the mindset of growth and continuous learning descrived by Prof. Dweck.

Skeptics might still ask:

"How can the Growth Mindset even exist if at birth we are given predefined brain assets to work with?!"

New discoveries in neuroscientific show us that we are innately wired for growth. It is an evolutionary mechanism built into us, that each one of us can tap into.

Neuroplasticity is the neuroscience term used to refer to the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual's life. Research in the latter half of the 20th century showed that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are "plastic") even through adulthood.

Neuroplasticity has three (3) basic mechanisms:

Neurogenesis is the process by which neurons are produced by neural stem cells. This process is most active during the embryonic development phase, indeed. But what by middle school science teachers (and all scientists) didn't know (an undisclosed number of) years ago was that even the adult brain continues to produce some new neurons. A study on London taxi drivers showed their hippocampus (brain organ associated with memory) physically grows as their knowledge of the city maps grows.

Neurogenesis is evidenced in a few areas of the brain and it does not happen a lot in adulthood, however, this area is still under research and more discoveries are yet to come.

Myelination is the process of producing the myelin sheaths that surround the axons. (Refer to the first graphic above.) Myelin is a fatty substance that acts as an electrical insulator on a wire (the axon) making the signals stronger and preventing interference. The majority of the myelin is produced after birth through childhood and adolescence, and then the new production sharply declines in early adulthood.

Synaptic Connections is the mechanism by which our brains constantly rewire themselves creating new synaptic connections between existing neurons. It is a positive feedback loop process - the more we use certain pathways, the more synaptic connections we grow, and the faster and more reliable the brain signals are. It is the equivalent of automatically adding new lanes to a highway once the traffic reaches a certain throughput threshold. (Don't you wish this was the case in real life!) Or, the Cloud-native equivalent is to a compute resource placed in an auto-scaling group - the more demand there is, the more it replicates.

This is the process by which we learn new skills and form new habits. The more we lean in and practice them, the easier the skills become. However, the process also works in reverse - if we stop using certain knowledge or skill, we lose the corresponding synaptic connections and the neural pathways disintegrate and become weaker.

Unlike neurogenesis and myelination, which steeply decline in our early 20s, the synaptic rewiring processes continue well into adulthood.

Hopefully, with the new knowledge above, there are fewer skeptics and more believers that continuous growth is indeed possible and the Growth Mindset is within reach for each one of us. What we believe is what we become - as we will learn from the next post. Stay tuned!

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