Growth Mindset: The Science of Failure and Neuroplasticity

Trying to encourage students and CELTA trainees to frame the learning process through the prism of a Growth Mindset can really boost motivation and learning (links to more information at the end of the post). According to Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory, Growth Mindset beliefs state that learning from failures is an important part of the learning process and frustrations from errors must be embraced as a key rung on the ladder of learning.

But why is this? Do positive reactions to errors really lead to learning? What’s going on in the brain to make this happen?

“Errors are the basis for neuroplasticity and learning…Humans do not like this feeling of frustration and making errors. The few that do do exceedingly well…The ones that don’t generally don’t learn much.”

Enter neurobiology professor Andrew Huberman, a colleague of Professor Dweck’s at Stanford University. His podcast is jam-packed with useful and clearly-presented information on utilising neuroscience to optimise learning. I fully recommend a complete listen (I was left open-mouthed by the information on creating better conditions for neuroplasticity before a learning session by manipulating limbic tension and balance, for example), but to limit the scope of this post, below the video I’ll pinpoint 8 key snippets related to why learning from errors is the foundation for learning anything new.

1. What we commonly call ‘learning’ is the result of triggering plasticity (new connections) in the nervous system and neuronal networks. Effective learning is about creating a chemical urgency – mixing the right chemical cocktail – for this state to occur.

A great visual representation of neuroplasticity at 1:25 (the neurons, not Arnold Schwarzenegger!)
The same concept through a story for the younger learners. Great series, by the way.

2. Only if signals are sent that something isn’t going right will the nervous system adapt. If not, it will stay as it is, rolling along in its comfort zone, as adaptations are energetically expensive. Reminding yourself of this fact can be key when coupling the effortful experience of learning with a motivational hit of dopamine (more on this in no.7).

3. Set aside approximately 90 minutes for a learning session. This follows the brain’s recurring ultradian rhythm cycles throughout the day and night (our sleep cycles last approximately 90 minutes too, but that’s a story for another day).

Study session and lesson length should be informed by this fact

4. The three main chemicals in the neorplasticity chemical cocktail:

  1. Epinephrine: aids alertness.
  2. Acetylcholine: aids focus.
  3. Dopamine: aids motivation and reward.

5. Our negative response to making errors automatically triggers the release of epinephrine and acetylcholine. The sensation caused is often negatively labelled as frustration, and this is when many people will give up, perhaps fuelled by the Fixed Mindset belief that failure shows they just “aren’t born with this talent”. However, this is exactly when you need to make the most of the increased alertness and focus to persevere and “embrace the suck” of learning something new (as AI scientist Lex Fridman poetically calls it) or the learning opportunity will be wasted.

6. Arming yourself with a Growth Mindset to recognise the role of errors and resisting 7-30 minutes* of fully-focused and increasingly-successful failure during the 90-minute session (see no.3) – despite your best efforts (this doesn’t work if you’re failing on purpose!) – will trigger enough plasticity to alter neural circuits during later rest and for learning to occur. Dopamine will be released when small improvements start to be made.

*Shorter periods of highly-focused intensity on smaller bits of learning are key for adults, whose neuroplasticity tapers off after the age of 25, so incremental learning of new skills and information is essential. Children are able to focus for longer periods of time thanks to higher plasticity, which leads to the possibility of larger chunks of learning at a time.

Beckett’s famous quote is backed up by cutting-edge neuroscience

7. Dopamine is the key neurochemical as it accelerates neuroplasticity. As well as gritting through failure and persisting until we improve, we can also support dopamine release by subjectively coupling the feeling of frustration with a positive reaction. This can be as simple as telling ourselves that errors are a key step towards learning anything (an important feature of Growth Mindset beliefs).

8. Changes do not take place during the learning session itself; the actual neuronal adaptations occur during sleep or non-sleep deep rest (e.g. 20 minutes of meditation). The implications are worth underlining: study as hard and as smart as you like, but without decent rest afterwards, the long-term learning won’t be wired into the nervous system.

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As Professor Andrew Huberman neatly summarises, “errors are the gateway of plasticity.” Understanding this scientific fact as part of a Growth Mindset towards learning is key to optimising our learning experiences.

Use this knowledge yourself and why not pass it on?

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Interested in finding out more about Growth Mindset?

For a beginner’s guide, start with my article ‘It’s All in the Head’. For more on how to implement it, including focusing teacher-student feedback and introducing it to students (lesson plans available), see the Mindset section of the blog.

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