“I just can’t do it.”
I’ll never forget the moment, sitting at my parent’s kitchen island, feeling deflated after my first maths tutoring session for GMAT, a horrendous standardised exam required for admission to most graduate business programs globally.
A feeling of relief washed over me when my parents didn’t try to convince me to keep going, and we all agreed I wouldn’t take the test. Instead, I’d apply to schools that don’t require a GMAT — there’s no shame in that.
I wish at that point, as a young 21-year-old, I had known about neuroplasticity and the importance of those uncomfortable feelings of frustration.
Your Brain Can Change, Adapt and Grow
“I’m not good at maths.”
“I’m not a creative person.”
Somewhere along the way, I had picked up these labels to define what I could and could not do.
These words from the positive psychology book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor changed my life:
We are able to rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive — to see more possibility wherever we look. It’s not a question if, but how much change is possible.
It’s a scientifically proven fact: unlike other species, as humans, we can rewire our brains.
That is the essence of the incredible breakthrough of neuroplasticity: your brain is not fixed. This fantastic feature of our nervous system allows your brain to change in response to your experiences, thoughts and actions.
Sure, our brain’s capacity for learning and adapting to new knowledge reduces after we hit a certain age (generally around 25).
But that doesn’t mean that accessing our brain’s ability to grow and expand is impossible.
Now, how does it work on a neurological level? Simply put:
Within our brains are billions upon billions of neurons interconnected to form a complex set of neural pathways. Every time we perform an action or have a thought, electrical currents travel down the relevant pathways, from neuron to neuron, delivering the messages.
The more we perform that particular action or think a certain thought, the stronger the connection between the neurons will become, making the message travel faster.
That’s how an action or thought, with enough repetition, becomes automatic.
In this post, I’d like to tell you about an under-appreciated feature of neuroplasticity: the importance of making mistakes and the feelings of frustration that arise from that.
Making Mistakes Primes Your Brain for Learning
Most of us don’t like the feeling of being clumsy, not knowing how to do something and getting it wrong. We’re quick to decide that it’s too complicated or just not for us.
‘Pre-neuroplasticity-awareness Charlotte’ told herself she’s terrible with numbers, and there’s no point spending hours behind my desk, forcing something that’s not working.
It turns out this inner tension and feelings of frustration are exactly what I needed.
I learned this after listening to Huberman Lab, a popular podcast by Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and professor at Stanford School of Medicine — and it blew my mind.
In one of his episodes, he talks about the power of making mistakes.
The way to enter an optimal state of plasticity, where your brain and nervous system are primed for change, is by creating mismatches or errors.
Mistakes signal to your brain that something is wrong; something isn’t being achieved. This feedback loop will trigger a cocktail of neurochemicals to be released and notify your nervous system of the need for change:
- Epinephrine (or adrenaline) for alertness
- Acetylcholine for focus -> helps your nervous system recognise the gap between what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do.
- As your brain starts making adjustments, the slightest improvements will give you small dopamine hits (the motivation molecule).
When you enter this state, the possibility of change is not just geared towards the specific thing you are trying to learn (for example, a math formula).
Instead, you are learning from every experience at that moment.
If you can find a way to leverage the frustration towards drilling deeper into what you’re doing, you are setting yourself up for terrific neuroplasticity and rapid learning.
On the other hand, if you take the frustration and walk away, you are using the state of plasticity to rewire your brain according to what happens afterwards: feeling deflated and incapable.
That’s what I did after my first tutoring session: in this optimal state of neuroplasticity, I took the discomfort as a reason to quit. Unknowingly, by doing this, I was reinforcing my belief that I am not good at maths and there is no point trying.
According to Huberman, this impatience in dealing with frustration is why most people fail to achieve their goals.
Embrace Those Feelings of Frustration
Isn’t that fascinating?
Just knowing this about our brains can help us manage our emotions better. Being conscious of the fact that chemicals are sloshing around in your system as you’re feeling frustrated lets you observe those feelings with curiosity, shushing the inner voice telling you to quit and “you just can’t do it”.
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