The Great Descartes Intelligence Caper: What Educators Should Know About Brain Science and Mindset

For centuries French philosopher Rene Descartes pretty much dictated what we believed about the human brain. He argued that the mind and brain were separate—made of different ingredients and following different rules. The brain, according to Descartes, was a physical, material thing existing in space and time and following the laws of physics. The mind (or the soul, as Descartes called it) was immaterial, a repository of non-physical thoughts, not taking up space or obeying the laws of matter. The brain was a mechanical, hardwired, unchanging organ; the mind was the mystical and mutable control center of reasoning and desire. But they weren’t really connected. One did not affect or influence the other. Therefore, what you thought, how you thought, what you did, what you read, your mindset and attitudes—none of this had any affect over the hard-wired, mechanical brain.

What this boils down to is that from Descartes we accepted that intelligence is set, that what we’re born with is all we’ll ever have to work with, and that our thoughts and attitudes can in no way change our brain. Nowhere is Descartes’ philosophy better illustrated than in a story told in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. In the book, brain scientist Michael Merzenich recounts a time when he was a child and his mother’s cousin stopped for a visit to their home. The cousin had just come from a ceremony at the White House where she’d been honored as national Teacher of the Year. Merzenich recalls his mother asking the super-teacher cousin her number one teaching tip.

Super-teacher answered, “Well, you test them when they come into school, and you figure out whether they are worthwhile. And if they are worthwhile, you really pay attention to them, and you don’t waste time on the ones who aren’t.”

Ouch! But who could blame her? It’s what we all believed.

Thankfully scientists like Michael Merzenich and others have thoroughly changed our minds (no pun intended) about intelligence and who is and isn’t “worthwhile” through their research on brain plasticity. We now understand that the brain is in no way hardwired, that brain exercises can be as effective as medications in treating diseases as severe as schizophrenia, that radical improvements in cognitive function are possible even in the elderly, and that practicing new skills and thinking new thoughts can actually reroute hundreds of millions of connections in our physical brains.

Merzenich’s programs are responsible for thousands of “learning disabled” students radically improving cognition and academic performance in as little as 30 to 60 hours of treatment. So what about our traditional view of intelligence? Researcher Carol Dweck would probably tell us to chuck it to the curb.

Dweck, reknown author and professor of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted over three decades of research debunking our common belief that intellect and/or talent is the recipe for success. In her article Raising Smart Kids she confirms that,

“In fact, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings… On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.”

Dweck’s research reveals that a person’s beliefs about his or her abilities and intelligence is more powerful than the concrete skills and knowledge the person possesses. For example, when students believe that a poor performance is based on a lack of effort or practice they are motivated to try harder and consequently they improve, whereas when they believe poor performance is based on a lack of intelligence they are demotivated and performance declines.

I have stopped praising my own children and students with phrases like

“Great job!”
“You’re so smart!”
“You’re really good at that!”

And replaced them with,

“I admire how hard you work at that!”
“What do you think helped you do so well?”
“I can tell you really like a challenge.”

I have a friend who used to annoy me with his mantra of “thoughts create beliefs, beliefs create behaviors, behaviors create results, results create reality.” As it turns out he has a lot of research on his side.