Understanding Brain Plasticity is Today’s Moral Imperative (5 MUST-read books for 2018)

We are the most nurture-dependent species that has ever existed on the planet.

This means that our brains are not just hardwired from birth. They are literally, physically, neurologically, moment-by-moment, formed and built by our experiences.

The more we learn about the brain’s plasticity, the less society can let themselves off the hook for not ensuring the safety and nurturing of our young.

We must stop acting as though behavior problems and mental illness are things that occur in isolation. We are social animals and what happens to us socially affects our brains, minds and bodies.


Agency is the belief that we have what it takes to change, to grow, evolve and ‘figure things out’. Understanding the malleability of our brain increases our sense of agency – not just as individuals, but who we are as a society and as a species.

We all play a role in how we are shaping each other’s brain architecture:
parents to children, teachers to students, leaders to employees and vice versa.

If you are an educator, social worker, parent or leader, please make 2018 a year where you learn more about neuroplasticity, the effects of trauma and adversity, and the influences of early childhood experience on our brain’s architecture.


“Our great challenge
is to apply the lessons of neural plasticity,
the flexibility of brain circuits,
to rewire the brains and re-organize the minds of people
who have been programmed by life itself
to experience others as threats
and themselves as helpless.”

– Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score



Here are five MUST-READ books to get you started:

Neuroplasticity (2016) by Moheb Costandi, Molecular and Developmental Neurobiologist, turned science writer. MIT Press 2016

The Pocket Guide to the PolyVagal TheoryThe transformative power of feeling safe, (2017) by Stephen Porges, distinguished University Scientist at the Kinsey Institute.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at their Best and Worst, (2017) by Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University.

The Body Keeps the Score (2014), by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, former Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, Founder and Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World (2011), by David Deutsch, physicist at the University of Oxford, visiting professor in the Department of Atomic and Laser Physics at the Centre for Quantum Computation (CQC) in the Clarendon Laboratory of the University of Oxford.



I’m sneaking in three more book suggestions specifically for educators, parents and anyone involved in teaching the next generation (because growth mindset won’t accomplish what we hope it will if what and how we teach kids won’t help them thrive.)

Why Our Children Can’t Read, by Diane McGuiness, PhD, foreword by Steven Pinker

Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, by Dana Suskind, MD

Navigating the Social World: What Infants, Children, and Other Species Can Teach Us, Edited by MahzarinR. Banaji & Susan A. Gelman (part of the Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience)

#growth mindset


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Mistakes ‘neurobiologically’ grow your brain.

“We don’t passively forget that something is scary.
We actively learn that it isn’t anymore.”

– Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky, Behave


We aren’t born afraid of failure.
We learn to become afraid of it.

Why does this matter?

Because, according to IDEO’s innovation experts David Kelley and Tom Kelley,

“fear of failure […] is the single biggest obstacle
people face to creative success”.

This is one of the most important issues of our time.


Because creativity and innovative problem-solving are the only ways
we, as a species, will evolve beyond our outdated systems, structures and
patterns of history repeating itself.

So what can we do about this?


To ‘actively learn’ that mistakes aren’t scary means we have to shift the way we SEE them.

When we see something as helpful instead of harmful,
we are more likely to approach it.

“The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often how an individual views a mistake”  – Nelson Boswell

To actively learn that mistakes aren’t scary
we need to know what a mistake actually is –
NOT the meaning we’ve learned to make about it,
but what it is actually is, on a bio-mechanical level.


Mistakes lead to electrochemical activity in the brain
called the ERN response.  

Go to this AMAZING Stanford website with exciting research related to this:

This ONLY happens when we make a mistake.
It does NOT happen when we get an answer right.

In fact, we don’t even need to realize we’ve made a mistake
in order for this ERN activity to happen.

When we understand how the brain learns, this totally makes sense…

If we’re answering a question correctly,
It means we’ve already activated
the neural circuitry needed to perform that task.

Let me repeat that…

Getting an answer right,
or doing something well is
just repeating neural activity that has already happened many times.

So, the ‘re-frame’ or ‘mindset shift’ is:

a) Mistakes literally (‘neurobiologically’) grow your brain.

b) A mistake means you’re a performer ‘in the arena’.

Not a bystander.
Not a critic.
Not just passively posting a ‘like’ or an emoji.
You are actually, actively, sparking new activity that is literally growing your brain.


c) A mistake is therefore a sign of growth and opportunity,
NOT weakness

In your own life, organization, school, or classroom…
whatever you collectively choose
to reward, to praise, to notice*,
becomes a group-mindset.    

(*in fact – there’s science that shows us testosterone helps amplify what we collectively reward and value.  Testosterone is not inherently an ‘aggressive’ hormone, it’s just that is what we have socially rewarded for a very long time)…  more on that later.  Read Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave to find out more).


(click the image to download this as a pdf!)



When we choose to value things like mistakes, effort,
and even being someone who is ‘outside of the herd’,
we create ‘Psychological Safety’
to do those things we’re normally afraid of.

According to Frederik Pferdt – Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist,
(who I heard as a keynote speaker at the d.confestival in Berlin a few weeks ago),
‘Psychological Safety’ is one of Google’s keys to foster innovation.

The safer we feel about something, the more likely we are to approach it.
That’s how our brain works.

If we feel safe about making a mistake,
we’ll more likely try something we’ve never done before.


Re-frame mistakes by acknowledging what they actually are,
NOT the story that’s been passed down from previous generations.

According to the laws of nature,
mistakes are related to growth and evolution,
not weakness or inferiority.   

They are the very ingredient of anything NEW.


The more deeply you get this, the more sincere you’ll be when you tell people (including yourself) to try something new even if you might fail.

Ok… So that’s a piece of the puzzle —   a new way of seeing mistakes.

But then what?
Just keep saying mistakes are great without making any adjustments?
Of course not!
We then need to adjust, pivot, refine and try something new.


In next month’s article, I’ll give you key #2 to doing that NEW thing that moves us out of repeating our past and into a mode of creating a new reality.


Click on the image below to download it as a printable pdf



If you’re a parent or teacher, 

Read this ‘mistakes grow your brain’ article
specifically geared to educators, parents and caregivers!


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Why do I think thoughts that make me feel bad?


The brain does not know which thoughts
make you feel “bad” or “good”.

To the brain, thoughts are just electro-chemical pulses used to react to your environment.

There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thoughts.

Unfortunately, though, this means that we have thoughts that make us feel bad
– even if that doesn’t seem to be what we want.

How does this happen?


Your brain created pathways a long time ago
that affect how you see the world

Your first thoughts about the world came from what was around you.

As a child, you probably got the same messages over and over again

For example, if as a child, you grew up in a household
where there was a lot of yelling and fighting, you may have had the thought more than once
that “the world is a negative, angry place”.


It may have even been more subtle, like

“people are easily irritated by me,”

“I’m the reason people are unhappy”.


Each time we have a thought, cells in our brain send ‘pulses’ to each other.

It could look like this:

X –   –   –   –   X

The more we were around those people,  the more those cells continue to ‘talk to each other’.

X- – – – – – – -X


Since we’re in the same environments over and over again, those cells tend to ‘talk to each other’ a lot.

The brain then starts to ‘invest’ in those pathways by sending white fat to cover the connection between those cells.


That white fat covering (called myeline) makes it so those cells have faster connections and are the first to activate when we are in different situations.


This means that… if, say, you were around really stressed out or angry people growing up…

there’s a good chance you have opinions about yourself based on those stressed out/angry/ depressed/anxious people’s beliefs about life and you.


Because you were around them a lot, you may have these ‘thick connections’
in your brain related to negative thoughts about yourself.

These pathways are not the ‘truth’ about you –
they were just created based on you reacting to the stress/anxiety of other people around you.


When you are really upset, there’s a good chance
you’re having negative thoughts that are coming from the past
– and those ‘thick connections’.


One way to lower the stress that comes from all of that ‘negative’ wiring is to simply be more aware…
you can do that just by asking this question the next time you get really angry or depressed about something:

“is my reaction to this event based 100% on what is happening only in this moment…  Or is it possible that part of my reaction comes from stuff that happened before this that makes me think this thing is worse than it is?”

This video explains this idea even further!



Better parenting skills may break the poverty-disease connection: what this article left out is as important as what it put in


I just read a Scientific American article called
Better parenting skills may break the poverty-disease connection’.


I think this is an amazing article about how important it is for children
to be in the presence of adults who are self-aware and self-regulating,
and who are aware of the importance of things like cuddling and speaking and reading to children.

I am all for that – in fact, that is the deepest essence of everything I teach:
that we must all become ‘Child Mind Protection Agents’ to help protect
the unlimited potential of children’s minds (and joy) by helping the adults in their presence
(including us)  become more aware of our own fear-based behaviors,
and ‘social-emotional’ (NON-academic) skills that will help children thrive in today’s society.


We need more of this research to happen,
so that we can build more interventions and education to empower parents in those ways.


However, I felt compelled to write about what that article left out.


The article is about how the health of children who suffer
from economic hardship can be improved when their parents’ parenting skills improve.
I first just want to point out that the people who read scientific American
tend not to be the parents in the communities who suffer from economic hardship,
so that message will not reach them necessarily.


My hope – and I believe it’s likely echoed by the author, is how important it is
for the readers of Scientific American to know about how economic stress affects people
– and therefore feel inspired to do something about it.
That would be my greatest hope for articles like this.
We need more people who do have their basic needs met
(and therefore aren’t living in a constant state of toxic stress,
and  have the time and mental energy to read these articles)
to think of new ways to use their talents
to find out how to get deep into the roots about
why poverty and inequality even exist in the first place.



… to not just think about the effects of poverty and inequality
– but why they’re there.
If we only talk about the effects, we can only react.
When we talk about the roots – the deepest roots –
we can find ways to prevent and innovate.



The piece that I believe needs to be added here…
when we constantly report on  how ‘detrimental’ the parenting style is
of people living in poverty or harsh conditions, we leave out how important it is
for the parents of  children who live in middle to upper class socioecnonomic classes
to teach their children (and to empower themselves) to care about others
who don’t have access to the same resources.


I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – it does, I know firsthand..
But I am saying that it’s important to mention it alongside the
talking about ‘bad parenting’ from economically stressed environments.



There is a ‘parenting style’ that is just as detrimental to the well-being of human society…
the ‘parenting style’ of:

“let’s just care about OUR tribe.  As long as our exclusive family or community, or people ‘like us’ are ok,
we’ll turn a blind eye to what is going on around us.
Even worse,  we’ll perpetuate prejudice and assumptions about other classes or types of people –
we’ll say ‘those parents are just not as good at parenting’.
Sure, we’ll acknowledge on a surface level that it’s because they’re stressed out about money –
but we won’t acknowledge the role we play, or the lack of awareness we have
that contributes to the uneven playing field.”



I believe the message of the article is important and loving.
I feel deeply supportive of what it is saying.  This is not a ‘right/wrong’ issue…
it’s about adding more details to help empower as many people as possible.



AND…  Let’s be careful about how we use the terms “better”.   It denotes a superiority/inferiority mindset –
that can be dangerous, as it allows the people
who believe they are “better” at parenting to be off the hook
for looking to only better their own children’s chance at success,
rather than open themselves to all the millions of opportunities
they can create for them and their children to help alleviate the suffering of others,
and contribute to a just and equitable world.



Parenting skills that foster compassion,
awareness of the deepest roots of inequality,
and the desire to relieve the suffering of others
– even when they are different than what we are used to or comfortable with –
would also contribute to breaking the poverty-disease-connection.


Let me know what you think….