Having a positive mindset in math may do more than just help students feel more confident about their skills and more willing to keep trying when they fail; it may prime their brains to think better.
In an ongoing series of experiments at Stanford University, neuroscientists have found more efficient brain activity during math thinking in students with a positive mindset about math.
It’s part of a growing effort to map the biological underpinnings of what educators call a positive or growth mindset, in which a student believes intelligence or other skills can be improved with training and practice, rather than being fixed and inherent traits.
“Our findings provide strong evidence that a positive mindset contributes to children’s math competence,” said Lang Chen, a Stanford University postdoctoral fellow in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. “Beyond the emotional or even motivational story of ‘positive mindset,’ there may be cognitive functions supporting the story.”
New research suggests students with a more positive “growth mindset” in math have brains that may be more primed for solving math problems. In a Stanford University study, students who scored higher on an assessment of positive mindset have more brain activity throughout several areas associated with math problem-solving, as well as more efficient connections with the hippocampus, an area associated with memory recall in math.
Seeing a Mind in the Brain
In a forthcoming study previewed at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Chicago in October, Chen and colleagues tested 243 children ages 7 to 9 for intelligence, numerical problem-solving and math reasoning in word problems, reading ability, working memory, and math-anxiety levels. Chen also gave the students a survey designed to identify positive-mindset levels in math, such as questions about how much they enjoyed solving challenging problems and how competent they felt in learning math.
The researchers focused on math because other studies have found that a student’s mindset can be different for different domains—he or she could believe that reading ability can be improved but that skill at soccer is innate, for example—and math is a subject often associated with a fixed mindset.
Of the children in the study, 47 were asked to either stare at a fixed point or identify whether a series of addition problems were correct while being scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, a noninvasive method of identifying brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow in the brain.
Chen and his colleagues found that students with higher positive-mindset levels in math were more accurate at identifying correct and incorrect math problems, even after controlling for differences in IQ, age, working memory, reading ability, and math anxiety.
A lower positive-mindset level was likewise associated with lower math performance.
“This is very, very exciting,” said Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who first coined the terms “growth” and “fixed” mindsets, but who was not involved with Chen’s study. “We’ve typically asked how does [mindset] affect students’ willingness to take on challenges and their ability to stick to that challenge when they hit setbacks. This opens up a whole new area, which is getting ready to solve a problem.
“My hunch is that often in the fixed mindset, your mind is preoccupied with ‘Is this hard?’ ‘Will I look smart?’ ‘What will happen if I don’t do this?’ ‘I’m not good at math,’ instead of getting that brain ready to do it,” Dweck said.
Mapping the Links
Students with high positive-mindset levels had generally greater brain activity in a number of areas of the brain associated with math problem-solving: the hippocampus, the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the left supplementary motor area, the right lingual gyrus, and the dorsal cerebellum. In particular, the researchers found faster, smoother connections, called “upregulation” between the hippocampus—an area often associated with the ability to quickly remember math facts and processes—and the other brain areas associated with math problem-solving.
Imagine starting your car on a frosty morning. If you warm up the engine a bit before starting out, the car is primed to work better. And if you’ve just tuned up your engine, it is able to run more efficiently.
Chen’s findings suggest a positive mindset could be giving the brain a similar double boost: “Overall, there is an upregulation of the general cognitive network involving memory, spatial processing, and cognitive control supporting math cognition,” he said. “Then, specifically, one of the interesting components is the hippocampal region, which shows a very specific effect for memory retrieval for problem-solving. If we want to solve 3+4=7, there are several different ways to solve it, but the hippocampus plays a role in retrieval rate in solving arithmetic problems. It’s one of the cognitive-core hallmarks for efficient problem-solving for math in children.” The more positive the mindset, the higher the activation and upregulation researchers saw in those areas and the better students performed on the math problems.
Echoes of Other Studies
Dweck said that pattern aligns with separate findings by Bruce McCandliss, a Stanford education professor not associated with Chen’s study, who found differences in the brains of people who perform better at solving math problems, but had not looked at whether those differences were related to mindset.
“For certain people when they get ready to solve a problem, their brains are in a ready, prepared state,” Dweck said. “It’s as though they’ve prepared what they are going to need and gotten it all online.”
Chen’s study is one of the first to look at the potential benefits of positive-mindset levels on cognitive processing generally, but there is already mounting evidence that a growth mindset can improve the emotional and motivational supports for learning.
For example, studies have found that students with high growth-mindset levels are less likely to suffer from performance anxiety or stereotype threats, and more likely to learn from—but not obsess over—their mistakes. A 2011 study by Jason Moser, a neuropsychologist at Michigan State University, found people with a high growth mindset were more likely to show conscious attention to mistakes and learn from them more quickly.
“A lot of researchers, cognitive scientists, have traditionally thought of motivation as something very separate from intellectual performance or ability,” Dweck said, but as a broader group of researchers from neuroscience, education, and psychology have started working together, “we are finding the brain doesn’t separate these things. The way we have modularized the human mind will not hold up.”
Thinking and Emotion
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, who studies how emotions contribute to learning, agreed.
“The emotion and thought structures in the brain are totally entwined, totally docked in the brain,” she said. She has found the cognitive habits often associated with a fixed mindset—like focusing on grades or considering errors a threat to your identity—can make the brain react emotionally to the wrong things during learning.
“If you are trying to do math and worrying about whether you are going to fail or not, rather than the process of doing math, … that is not deep learning,” she said.
Chen and his colleagues are in the middle of a larger, longitudinal study tracking how 60 students’ attitudes and underlying brain activity change as they grow from age 7 to 12. The researchers are trying to identify differences in students’ mindsets and performance if they started out performing generally well or poorly in math.
Separately, the researchers are also working with Jo Boaler, a Stanford math education professor and a co-founder of Youcubed, an intervention to improve growth-mindset levels in math.
“Mindset can change quite a lot across age and grade level, so we really want to see how that change can relate to different brain functions and different math achievement,” Chen said. “We want to look at the unique contributions of positive mindset to math achievement and development.”