When You Believe In Yourself Your Brain Operates Differently

Carol Dweck and her colleagues have shown that everyone has a mindset, a core belief about how they learn (Dweck, 2006). People with a growth mindset are those who believe that smartness increases with hard work, whereas those with a fixed mindset believe that you can learn things but you can’t change your basic level of intelligence. Mindsets are critically important because they lead to different learning behaviors, which in turn create different learning outcomes. When people change their mindsets and start to believe that they can learn to high levels, they change their learning pathways (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) and achieve at higher levels.

Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up easily, whereas students with a growth mindset are persistent and keep going even when work is hard.

In one study, seventh-grade students were given a survey to measure their mindset. Then researchers followed the students over two years to monitor their mathematics achievement. The results were dramatic, as the achievement of the students with a fixed mindset stayed constant, but the achievement of those with a growth mindset went onward and upward (Blackwell et al., 2007)

Graph 1: Mindset impacts mathematics achievement (adapted from Blackwell et al., 2007)

An important study showing the relationship between our beliefs and our brain activity found that when people with a growth mindset made a mistake, they experienced more brain activity than those with a fixed mindset (see section 2 Mistakes). The brains of people who believed in their ability to improve acted differently when a mistake was made than the brains of those who did not. The study also found that individuals with a growth mindset had a greater awareness of errors than individuals with a fixed mindset, so they were more likely to go back and correct their mistakes. This research supported another study (Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006) which showed that students with a growth mindset experience enhanced brain reaction and pay greater attention to their mistakes.

All participants responded with a brain spark—a synapse firing—when they made mistakes, but having a growth mindset meant that the brain was more likely to spark again, showing awareness that a mistake had been made.

These two brain images from the study, are voltage maps showing the activity in the brains of those with a growth and fixed mindset. The orange color of the growth mindset brains reflects the greater activity in the brain with more intensity and attention to error.

The relationship between our beliefs and the operation of our brains is clearly profound. If you believe in yourself, and do not think that your ability is fixed, your brain is more likely to spark and grow when mistakes are made.

The fact that brain activity is most intense when people have a growth mindset, shows just how important it is that people believe in themselves and they know that brains can grow and change with hard work.

This article contains excerpts from Jo Boaler’s new book, Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching


Boaler, J. (2015). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 1(2), 75-86.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263.