Today’s Solutions: October 19, 2021

Positivity has the power to create transformational change in all facets of life. In praise of positivity’s wide-ranging power, we are dedicating this week to publishing a series of articles on the topic.

To kick things off, we bring you a study from Stanford University about the effect of positive thinking on the brain. 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. But whatever the exact weight of various factors turns out to be, it’s already clear that a positive attitude has a bigger impact on performance than the scientists expected.

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