Inspirational posters featuring soaring eagles and sunlit mountain summits are easy to mock. But it turns out rousing slogans and uplifting images might not actually be pure cheese after all.
When Stanford researchers recently peered into the brains of students to see how attitude affects achievement, they found something startling. Your outlook on learning, it turns out, matters just as much as your IQ.
This is your child's brain on positivity.
Scientists and educators have long noted that kids who have a positive attitude towards math do better in the subject, but is that just because acing tests naturally makes you enjoy something, or does the arrow of causation point the other way? Does starting off with the expectation that you'll enjoy and be good at math help you master numbers?
To start to tease this out a research team out of Stanford recently analyzed the math skills and attitudes of 240 kids aged seven to ten, as well as running 47 of them through an fMRI machine while asking them to do some basic arithmetic. What did they find?
As expected, kids who did well in math liked math more, both according to self reports and their parents, and kids who hated the subject did poorly. But the brain scans also turned up something much more fascinating. The images revealed that the hippocampus, a brain area linked with memory and learning, was significantly more active in kids with a positive attitude towards math.
It appears it's not just that children like subjects they're good at. It's also that liking a subject helps students' brain actually work better.
The researchers caution that their study can't pin down exactly how much achievement is down to prior math success and how much is because of the way positivity pumps up learning in the brain. "We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional," said Lang Chen, the study's lead author. "It's like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning."
But whatever the exact weight of various factors turns out to be, it's already clear that attitude has a bigger impact on performance than the scientists expected.
"Attitude is really important," said Chen, "Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ."
You can improve your kid's brain after all.
Many parents of kids who struggle in school have wished that they could somehow tinker with their kid's brain to fix whatever was holding them back and making them feel so miserable. This research suggests a way they can do just that.
It may remain largely impossible to change your kid's natural intellectual gifts, but it is entirely doable to help them foster more positive attitudes towards a given subject and their own potential (here are some specific ideas). This research shows that this kind of attitude adjustment will literally change the way their brain works for their better, giving them a boost at school. Maybe it's time to stop laughing and break out those eagle posters then.