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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.
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 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation.
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.

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. 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. The researchers are trying to identify differences in students' mindsets and performance if they started out performing generally well or poorly in math. 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.

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