Neuroplasticity & Mindset Development How stress, trauma and substance abuse affect the brain

The brain is one of the most complex and fascinating organs in a person's body. It is made up of billions of neurons and other cells protected by bones of the skull and "produces enough electrical energy to power a 40-watt light bulb for 24 hours" (National Institute on Drug Abuse," 2007, p.5). The brain consists of the Prefrontal Cortex, the Motor Cortex, the Sensory Cortex, the Visual Cortex, the Broca's Area (for speech control), the Auditory Cortex, the Wernicke's Area, the Cerebellum, the Hippocampus and the "Einstein Area" (see Diagram 1).

Brain imaging and brain scanning have proven that the changes children and adolescents undergo during their formative years have a tremendous effect on their cognitive development, intellect, behavior and emotions. One area of development that has been of particular interest to psychologists, medical doctors and educators alike, is on the role that brain development plays on a teenager's ability to cope with pain, changes, new experience and growth. Learning more about how the brain grows, develops and changes over time is of great importance to researchers because it will assist them in determining ways to influence teenager's overall thinking and behavior.

According to the website (2012), "Neuroplasticity (also known as brain plasticity or brain malleability) is "the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment." In the article Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health, author Joyce Shaffer (2016) explains how neuroplasticity can have a negative or positive influence at any age across the entire lifespan. According to Shaffer (2016), Marian Diamond, "the mother of neuroplasticity," was the first female scientist to prove that "the brain shrinks with impoverishment and grows in an enriched environment at any age" (p.2).

Researchers in the fields of psychology, sociology, youth development and medicine have all been interested in understanding how the brain development process affects children, they way they learn, change behaviors and process information. The video below affirms this theory of brain plasticity and demonstrates how neuroplasticity works.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor and author of the book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" (2006), shares her decades of research on the topic of achievement and success and how a person's mindset influences their behavior and eventual outcome in any area of their lives. Similarly, in the book by Paul Tough titled, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012), he traces the links between stress and life success and the ways in which developing qualities like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control can influence a child's life more heavily than their experiences with early adversity can.

Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, discusses the findings of the research she has done over the last 20 years regarding the differences in people that embrace a "growth mindset" versus those that adopt a "fixed mindset." It was found that people who had a Fixed Mindset, (or had fixed beliefs about themselves), were more likely to believe that success was easy to obtain and a by-product of being intelligent. To them, a person was either smart or they weren't. If someone failed at something, it was because they were not good enough at it. In contrast, she found that those people who embraced a Growth Mindset were more likely to believe that if they tried hard enough at anything, or if they put enough effort into it, they could succeed; if they failed at a particular task, they could always try again with a different approach. For them, there was always another chance, direction or way around failure or disappointment.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

In general, people who embraced a growth mindset, were likelier to deal with challenges, adversity and setbacks in a more positive way. They were likelier to ask questions like "What can I learn from this situation?", "How can I improve next time?", "Is there anyone I can seek out for support that has lived through a similar experience and overcome it?" In the video below, we hear about a few famous celebrities that encountered failure and chose to rise above it instead of giving up due to the supposed setback.

Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney and Albert Einstein all exhibited traits inherent in individuals that adopt a Growth Mindset. Their lives demonstrate to us is that our mindsets play a pivotal role in the experiences we encounter. With enough determination, drive, perseverance and resilience to rise above setbacks and harsh criticisms, it is possible to accomplish your dreams. Praising our student's efforts versus their intelligence can contribute greatly to our students moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Neuroscience has taught us that the brain is a very unique organ; it is malleable and constantly renewing itself with new neurons. What this confirms to us is that mindsets are not stagnant. They can be changed. But, it will require effort, work and conscientiousness on a person's part so that old neurons can be replaced with the new ones and a new brain pathway can be developed. "To adapt a new behavior, a conscious-you must necessarily train your brain to sustain an optimal state of mind in the most taxing circumstances....Your willingness to pay attention, therefore, and to stay focused on your goals is especially vital to learning new behaviors" (Staik, 2013).

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Carolina Moquete

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