Can We Actually Get Smarter?

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Do you remember how hard it was to learn how to tie your shoes?  For many of us, our initial experience with shoe-tying is buried under a heavy pile of childhood memories.  If you have young children, however, this challenge may be easier to recall.  How does it go....the rabbit hops around the tree and through the hole?  Something like that.  

For a child who's trying to make sense of the world, this seemingly simple task can overwhelm and frustrate the senses.  Over time, though, shoe-tying becomes less arduous.  By the time we reach adulthood, we're able to multitask while tying our shoes in the morning.  After years of practice, the process is automatic.  Our brains know what to do without thinking about it. 

This is how the brain learns.  With time and repetition, the brain gets better at doing just about anything.  Whether we're playing the violin, fielding ground balls, painting portraits, or solving complex math problems, our brains improve with practice.  Brain science has a name for this - neuroplasticity.  Basically, this means that our brains can strengthen based on our behavior.  Our habits alter the capacity of the conscious brain. 

I think it's easier to understand neuroplasticity by imagining a popular hiking trail.  This particular route gets lots of foot traffic throughout the year.  It is clear of fallen trees and other debris.  Hikers move swiftly along the trail without difficulty.  

Now picture a less popular hiking trail.  It is overgrown with shrubs and branches.  A hiker finds this trail more challenging, since he has to carefully maneuver around the impediments in his way.  It takes much longer to travel on this path.  

Here's the connection.  Information moves across the "hiking trails" of our brains.  With time and repetition, these hiking trails (known as "neural pathways") become stronger.  Every time you practice tying your shoes, for example, you hone the neural pathways involved in this activity.  Practice makes your brain more efficient and capable of tasks that used to be impossible.

So, because of neuroplasticity, effort is more important than natural ability.  Regardless of how talented (or not) you might be at birth, you can train your brain to make gains in any endeavor.  The human brain gets smarter as it learns how to read, drive a car, fish, book plane tickets, cook lasagna, and shoot free throws.  Also, we can boost creativity, critical thinking, and other intellectual abilities with practice.  Isn't that amazing?

Neuroplasticity is at the heart of the work I do as a "mental conditioning" coach.  I help parents and teens form habits for success in school and life.  With practice, parents improve in many areas including communication, patience, flexibility, and optimism.  Teens grow stronger in aspects such as self-discipline, managing conflict, perseverance, and emotional regulation.  Every minute spent on developing these habits cultivates the neural pathways of success.

We got better at tying our shoes with practice.  It wasn't easy when we started.  Now, however, shoe-tying is an automatic task.  Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains can become more adept at doing anything if we devote enough time and repetition to the enterprise.  This even applies to our intellectual abilities.  The sky is the limit!