Neuroscience and psychology can be overwhelming topics. What are synapses? How do neurotransmitters work? What are self-fulfilling prophecies? While the goal of this blog is to make this sort of information accessible, there’s a very powerful and very simple place to begin.
The brain is best understood through the following metaphor: The brain is a group of muscles, and each ability within the brain is an individual muscle.
To understand that the brain is like a group of muscles is to understand both that change is possible and how change works. Of course, we don’t really grow our brains like we grow muscles, since brains are made of neurons, not muscle cells. However, we do, quite literally, grow our brains when we learn new things, practice our skills, and challenge ourselves. Research into neuroplasticity and neurogenesis shows that this is true. Believing that our brains can be strengthened in this way is the essence of having a growth mindset.1
The idea that the brain is like a group of muscles gives us a better perspective on studying, stress, and behavioral change. Also, because it emphasizes our ability to improve, this metaphor also inspires us to go to the mental gym and put in some reps. It encourages us to do the hard work that leads to improvement.
Getting your Brain in Shape
So you might think of it like this: You’ve got a mental muscle for language arts, another mental muscle for math, and another mental muscle for history, and so on. You’ve also got mental muscles for focus, self-control, organization, and planning.
The consequences of this are pretty straightforward: Whatever ability you put effort into practicing, you get better at. To grow biceps, you do curls; to get better at math, you do math problems. If you don’t work out, you fall out of shape; if you don’t challenge your brain, your mind weakens. Just as exercise is a core practice of physical health, learning is a core practice of brain health.
This metaphor also helps us see the necessity of challenging our brains in a variety of ways. If you regularly go to the gym and spend months only doing upper body workouts, your legs don’t get any stronger. Likewise, if you only study math, you don’t become a better writer. To improve your entire body, you have to perform a variety of exercises; to improve your entire brain, you have to perform a variety of cognitive challenges.
Muscles you don’t use atrophy. Skills you never practice are forgotten. When I was a student, I took several years of Spanish and several years of French. After high school, I never took another language class, but I did capitalize on several opportunities to practice Spanish, so today, I remember a great deal of Spanish. Meanwhile, there haven’t been any times when I chose to use French, so I’ve forgotten almost everything that I once knew. My Spanish muscle got exercised enough to stick around, while my French muscle withered away.
My experience with foreign languages demonstrates that the brain doesn’t sit in stasis. We essentially have three options: We can improve our abilities with frequent practice, we can maintain our abilities with occasional practice, or we can let our abilities fade away by not practicing. Every student who has forgotten some math over the summer is familiar with this phenomenon.
Step into the Arena
A related idea is the notion that many school subjects, such as math, are like sports. Math is like a sport in the sense that seeing other people do it and understanding how to do it aren’t enough. To become proficient at math, we have to practice. To become very good at math, we have to practice often.
Likewise, you can teach me how to shoot a basketball, and I can watch you shoot baskets for hours on end, but I’ll remain terrible at basketball until I take a bunch of shots for myself. Practice inevitably involves mistakes, and mistakes are essential to learning.1
We can’t exercise our brain muscles sitting on the bench or standing on the sidelines. We have to get into the game. We have to step into the arena.
The fact that the brain is like a group of muscles also helps us understand the necessity of rest and recovery. Just as the body gets tired from exercise, so too does the brain get tired from cognitive workouts. Thinking, learning, focusing, planning, and using willpower are all mentally tiring. After a full day of schoolwork, the brain is exhausted, just as the body is exhausted after a full day of exercise. Breaks help us recharge our batteries, and a good night’s sleep helps us recover so we’ll be ready to go again tomorrow.
Interestingly, our legs don’t become tired when we do upper-body workouts. Likewise, the different mental muscles we have for various school subjects also become tired individually. This means it’s a poor choice to practice math for several hours in a row. It’s better to mix it up, alternating between subjects every 30-60 minutes. School days are structured this way. Schools understand that spending Monday on Math, Tuesday on Science, Wednesday on English, and Thursday on History would be terribly ineffective.
The fact that the brain areas associated with different subjects become tired individually means that after getting really worn out by a lengthy math assignment, a student may have a surprising amount of energy left for reading. After writing a paper, a student can probably still study for a science test without feeling burnt out.
There are times, though, when students have to devote a large amount of time to working on a single subject, or simply a large amount of time working on school in general. This creates general exhaustion, just like a large amount of physical exercise does. If I spend all day hiking twelve miles to climb a mountain, I’ll have no energy to do pull-ups, even though the hike used only my legs, and the pull-ups would use only my arms. Spending all day working on a research paper doesn’t leave much mental energy leftover for practicing math. This is one reason why procrastination makes life so difficult: cramming is exhausting work. The solution, of course, is planning ahead so the work can be spread out.
If a student does need to cram for say, a history test, they will need to take breaks. If they try to plow through four straight hours of studying history, their brain will become very fatigued and won’t record the information as well. It’s necessary to occasionally take small breaks to rest the brain. Furthermore, because of the power of spaced repetition, breaks are critical to learning: Pausing to process what we’re studying helps us understand and remember it.2
It’s widely believed that stress is bad for you. Recent research has shown that this belief is actually a dangerous oversimplification. Stanford’s Kelly McGonigal has discovered that stress is only unhealthy–in the sense that it increases your risk of heart disease–if you believe it’s bad for you. That’s right, people who experience lots of stress, but don’t see it as harmful, are not harmed by it.3
Rather than seeing stress as harmful, they see it as helpful. They see it as their body’s response to a challenge; it helps them rise to the occasion. That is, of course, why stress hormones exist–they help us handle life’s difficulties.
Furthermore, those who are unharmed by stress don’t see difficult situations as threatening, but instead see difficulties as challenging. This is a powerful mindset that not only improves health, but also makes people more persistent, more resilient, and in the end, more successful. It is precisely the attitude adopted by people who have a growth mindset.1
Finally, to build upon our “the brain is a group of muscles” metaphor, we can actually view stress as a form of brain exercise.4 Facing challenges makes us tougher, just as climbing a mountain makes us stronger. However, just as it’s not healthy to exercise 24-7, since we’d injure ourselves, it’s not healthy to be stressed-out all the time. We need time for rest and recovery.4 We need real breaks.
The Willpower Muscle
So the brain is like a group of muscles. They get stronger when we use them, and after we give them a workout, they need time for rest and recovery. The final concept I want to present on this subject has to do with behavioral change.
Behavioral change is possible, but it’s also hard, so it’s helpful to know strategies that make it easier. The idea that the brain is like a bunch of muscles encourages us to think about behavioral change in a realistic way.
Behavioral change requires willpower, also known as self-control or self-discipline. Willpower is like a muscle: The more often we use it, the stronger it gets.5 So yes, willpower can be increased over time.
Just remember that change is slow. You cannot get in physical shape after only a month of going to the gym, and you cannot transform into a highly-disciplined person overnight. Wherever you are, the only gains that can be made are incremental. A student who is disorganized and who procrastinates cannot instantly become a rock-star student, but he can steadily make small improvements.
Impatience with behavioral change leads to disappointment, frustration, and giving up. For parents and educators, it’s important to praise effort, reward progress, and be patient. This is a long game.
Because willpower is like a muscle, it can be fatigued. In the long run it can be grown, but in the short run it is a finite resource. This means that if a person tries to exercise too much self-discipline at one time, they’ll fail. Think of the person who tries to quit smoking, quit drinking, start exercising, and start eating healthy all at once. They make it through a few tortuous days, completely drain their willpower reserves, slip up, and then give up completely.4
The solution is to focus on changing only one behavior at a time. Changing even one behavior is very difficult and drains our willpower reserves, so trying to change multiple behaviors at one time is unrealistic. Of course we’d like to change everything at once, so patience is paramount.
But wait, you might ask, aren’t there some people who consistently do many healthy behaviors while simultaneously leading busy, productive lives? Are they willpower superheroes or something? No. It turns out that, even though willpower can be strengthened, no one has a superhuman amount of self-discipline.4 Instead, what they have are a lot of good habits.4
Once a behavior has become habituated, it no longer requires willpower. Think of brushing your teeth. You’ve done this for so long that it’s an automatic habit. Thus, the good behavior of brushing your teeth doesn’t take any willpower.
Habits can take a long time to become firmly established, between two weeks and three months, and during this time, sustaining the new behavior requires a great deal of willpower. Since that willpower is a finite resource, a good rule of thumb is to build one habit at a time, and give each new habit at least a full month to become established.4
Habits should be grown sustainably.6 This means starting with small and simple behaviors, and gradually making them larger and more complicated.6 Again, the muscle metaphor serves us well here. If you want to be able to do 50 push-ups in a row, and you’re out of shape, you should absolutely not start by doing as many as you can. You’ll hurt yourself and be unable to work for the rest of the week.6
Rather, you should start by doing one push-up today, then two push ups tomorrow, then three push-ups the next day, and so on. This gives your muscles time to adjust to the new challenge without ever being overwhelmed.6 This is sustainable growth.
Likewise, with new behaviors such as study habits, we need to recognize that it’s unrealistic to go from zero to hero. So start small. Not studying at all? Try five minutes today, six minutes tomorrow, seven minutes the next day, and so on.
You have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. That’s simply the way humans develop. Our cognitive abilities can improve and our brains can become stronger, but this process can only happen at a slow and steady pace.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.
1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
3 McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TEDGlobal 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
4 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
5 Halvorson, Heidi Grant. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Plume, 2011.
6 Clear, James. Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. http://jamesclear.com/habits
Title Image: Verges, Xavier. “Grow your people.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Words added.