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Positively Positive Thinking

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

We’ve all seen cheesy posters of something inspirational. A cat hanging on a tree branch, or a bird’s silhouette against a sunset with something like, “Believe” written below it with small dots in between each letter. They’re usually disregarded as some cheesy marketing scheme or something your boss puts in an office full of cubicles to make up for the fact you’re underpaid and drained of all energy. But it turns out, while those posters may be cheap, the concept of positive thinking isn’t! Check out this article by Jessica Stillman on about the health benefits and “positives” of positive thinking.


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."

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