Human Potential and the Outlook for Success
In the past four years, I have discovered two things that have changed my entire view on life and human potential for the better. The first is Carol Dweck's growth mindset versus fixed mindset. The second is the science of epigenetics. They are two sides to the same coin with the former being the psychological aspects of understanding and believing that your potential for improvement and growth is unlimited and the latter being the biological discovery that you are NOT set in stone by your genes, but that many external factors in your diet, what you are exposed to (or expose yourself to) and your behavior, many of which you can exert control over, can turn on or off gene expression, literally meaning that you can biologically increase your IQ and optimize other aspects of your body, brain and their functionality.
Carol Dweck has revolutionized psychology and the way we conceive of ourselves and our potential. In her book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, she discusses a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. In the former fixed mindset, one believes that traits, such as intelligence, are innate, fixed and unchangeable. If there is nothing you can do to increase your intelligence, for example, why even try? You just hope you were dealt the right genetic cards and then spend your efforts trying to prove you are intelligent, not trying to improve yourself, your mind or your experience. If you perceive yourself not living up to the standards that you set for yourself, your self-esteem takes a huge hit because there is nothing you can do about it. You give up or go into face-saving mode of not screwing up, not making mistakes, as you try to prove to yourself and others that you have the right stuff. This is not only a recipe for failure or very limited success in life, it is also a miserable way to go through life. In the growth mindset, by contrast, you believe that the traits biology has given you are just starting points, and you can improve in any area that you want through effort. This incentivizes you to learn, to improve yourself, to challenge yourself, and you do indeed get better with effort and practice. In the growth mindset, failure is to be expected; it’s all a part of learning. It may hurt and feel bad, but it doesn’t mean you yourself are “bad” or “stupid” or any other trait that is set in stone. It just means that you are human and learning through trial and error. In a growth mindset, you understand that failure is valuable. It means you are challenging yourself and trying new things, being creative, innovating and believing in your ability to improve and change yourself! It’s incredibly empowering.
The second part of this actually proves and reinforces the first, and that is the science of epigenetics and discoveries about the human microbiome. These prove out Carol Dweck’s growth mindset from a biological basis. It is true that we are born with our genetic fingerprint and we do not control random mutations in our DNA itself. However, it turns out that we have a great deal of control over how our genes express themselves and whether certain switches are turned on or off. Our DNA is NOT our destiny. We may inherit a gene for allergies or a tendency to be over-reactive and anxious for example, but if we consume an anti-inflammatory diet, take certain probiotics or fiber or foods that increase the diversity of our microbiome or serotonin-producing bacteria in our gut, which is known as the second-brain, and/or if we meditate, we can turn off expression of the inflammatory and anxiety switches and turn on the calming switches in our genes, causing them to direct our responses in a more healthy way, perhaps by decreasing histamine production (improving allergies) and cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and other feel good neurotransmitters in the right balance. If our DNA is hardware, the “epigenome” is like the biochemical software that tells the DNA hardware what to do and how to do it. Moreover, we used to think that brains were set in stone, you only lose brain cells, you never grow new ones and your brain structure is pretty much the same throughout life. Now we know that the brain is flexible and through a process known as plasticity, it can change, grow new brain cells and create new connections with existing brain cells, improving its processing abilities and hence intelligence. So, if we ingest polyphenols, coffee, green tea, and other antioxidants and consume an anti-inflammatory, low sugar diet that sustains our brain and mitochondria, we can increase brain-derived neutrophic factor – BDNF and other factors that can increase brain cell growth in the hippocampus and regenerate the brain in healthy ways, actually increasing our intelligence. Certain behaviors have also been shown to increase intelligence and brain health, like Dual-N-Back, learning how to play an instrument, exercising in balanced ways, etc. We are just in the infancy of these exciting frontiers of science. I look forward to all the new discoveries that will unfold in these areas in my lifetime, and I can only imagine what will be found in my kids’ lifetimes.
Learning about these things has been fascinating and stimulating to me and it has literally changed my life and how I view myself, my potential and human potential in general. I encourage everyone to read Carl Dweck’s work and learn about this thrilling new area of science.