Trajectories for Your Brain: Positive Habits of Mind

The human brain is wonderfully adaptive. This ability to change according to conditions and usage is termed plasticity. Contrary to the textbooks of past decades, we now know that the brain can change through the course of a lifetime.

That’s the bright side. Despite the optimism of plasticity, we are subject to “habits of mind.” During early stages of development, neural connections are made that become structural as they are repeated over time. Certain thought patterns, mindsets, and mental strategies become foundational neural networks as they are repeatedly practiced, over and over. Some of these “habits of mind” are positive; some are not. Accumulated experiences append to and reinforce these foundational networks. For better or for worse, the repetitions of life experience embed attitudes, mindsets, behaviors, and even personality.

The brain is changeable, but we’re saddled with fixed circuitry.

As per the adage, “Old habits die hard,” positive change is not an easy path. And, to make matters worse, our fixed neural habits make it difficult even to know what to change. Fixed ideas specialize in defense. The brain is tuned to defend its ensconced patterns. This is an important point and merits reflection. We see what we’ve seen. We see what we expect to see. Patterns jump out to us when they mirror the representations in our brain. Further, dismantling fixed ideas unearths the confusions and problems that these fixed ideas had been holding at bay. So, achieving mental flexibility involves a struggle. It requires courageous objectivity and old-fashioned willpower. In its essence, this ability to reflect and “rewire” is a learned skill—a cognitive strategy that can be developed, practiced, and added to the neural repertoire of foundational skills.

While positive mental transformation as mature adults is commendable, we should attend to developing optimized foundational neural networks early on. There are critical stages of development when the brain is most malleable. Embryonic development, to be sure, but also critical stages in early childhood and adolescence. In fact, during the hormonal onslaught of puberty, the prefrontal cortex (executive-planning lobes in the forehead) breaks down and reconstructs. Psychological change and neural rewiring continue well beyond adolescence into one’s mid-twenties. It is during these critical periods that we might best optimize brain development.

Enter the musical arts. Imagine music study as a basecamp for developing positive habits of mind. Hours of practice, years of sustained skill development, and the powerful influence of coaches and mentors embed not only finely tuned perceptual and motor skill neural networks, but also foundational skills that include the habits of discipline, practice, and learning strategies.

We tend to presume the path of brain development as always positive. But, the brain is not actually intent on continuous improvement. It seeks to minimize energy consumption and therefore is satisfied to move toward dormancy. It’s as if your brain seeks retirement, yet is a willing soldier to get there. Despite this lazy inertia, the brain is resilient and responds well to being utilized, exercised, stretched and molded when this meets the survival needs of the organism. We just have to remember that the brain needs a push when the environment is complacent. You’re probably noting a comparison to physical exercise. Indeed, the same issue of lazy inertia applies. We need to overcome a threshold of pain to move into positive development.

Why is this important and what does it mean for parents, educators, young people, and retirees?

Some examples from other species tell the story. Consider the mole. In earlier evolution the mole had eyes. But, as the mole adapted to the safety of being always underground, eyesight was no longer helpful. So, eyesight went away.

The tapeworm once had legs…of sorts. But when this parasite routinely settled into the comfort of its host’s gut, legs became irrelevant. Its legs eventually disappeared.

The most unusual lesson of “use it or lose it” comes from the sea squirt. This little creature has a small brain which directs its locomotion through water. It proceeds in search of a safe rock on which to settle. Once settled and now resting in comfort, the sea squirt digests its own brain. The now empty brain cavity becomes a large, open mouth. Food drips through the water and settles into the mouth. Ah, life is good for the little sea squirt without a brain. Or is it?

Vigilance alert! Wake-up call!

It seems that in nature, and even in human tendencies, the brain is used so as to be unused. Vigilance alert! Diligence required. This may be a wake-up call. The sea squirt has no alternative, but we do. We must exercise our capacity to self-direct. We must embrace struggle just as we embrace exercise. Pushing against makes us stronger, makes us human, keeps us alive.

It follows that we have good reason to respect the puritan work-ethic and virtues of our forefathers. We may do well to revisit some seemingly out-of-date values: diligence, prudence, uprightness, courtesy, humility—and yes, hard work. Evidently, we become stronger and live longer with self-directed “struggle.” Deliberate grappling with a problem develops deeper and sustained learning.

Does this sound like piano practice? Routines of hard work, disciplined engagement, focused repetition. Indeed, the diligent music student is developing positive habits of mind— foundational neural circuitry for positive growth. Fueled by curiosity, courage, caring and grit, a little discomfort goes a long way. So does a lot of practice.

22 replies on “Trajectories for Your Brain: Positive Habits of Mind”

  • 1000 thank yous for this as this 84 year old continues to teach and must resist my brain’s tendency to be “unused”.

    • Wow! You inspire me! I am 74 and have over 40 students. I have always said I wanted to teach until I was at least 90,lol! I have gained so much ground this last decade of teaching, which just proves that we are always growing in our music despite our age. My desire has always been to do what God called me to do and move forward in His strength, despite the many roadblocks in this life. Congratulations on doing the same! No matter your age, you will always be needed and totally usable!

  • “Fueled by curiosity,courage,caring and grit,a little discomfort goes a long way,so does a lot of practice”

  • I love it, where do we get regular articles by Faber to inspire my students each month? I was thinking I wanted to start sending some information like that.

  • Excellent article as always. Just have to compliment your series of books again- students learn music reading faster and enjoy their pieces more than with any other method I have used over almost 5 decades of teaching. Thank you for the joy you have brought to so many through music – it’s a lifelong gift.

  • Yes, totally agree incisive and intelligent article with one huge caveat especially in relation to musical ability and potential..
    you can’t make a silk purse out of a sours ear.
    You’ve either go it or you haven’t
    There is no substitute for inherited musical ability or early child musical interaction. Yes you can work at and make some minor improvement but it will always be a major struggle to come close to inherent talent.

  • Great article! I wish more people could adopt this attitude toward music–and life in general!

  • This is brilliant! I will be sending a copy to all my adult students and parents of my younger students. As teachers, we need to be reminded of the importance of our profession. Students also should be made aware of the extra benefits that come with learning to play their instrument. Thank you Randall Faber!

  • Thank you for writing “Trajectories for Your Brain: Positive Habits of Mind.” Certainly, the opportunity to express the foundational neural circuitry for our children and teens and adults is imbedded in music.

    Teaching 50 students (and a wait list) in a private studio and continuing a very busy nonprofit that brings youth and live music to 33 senior facilities and 6 hospitals in Maryland, DC and Virginia keep me active and alive. We have as many as 6-10 events each weekend in our area. In addition, Tacy Foundation programs for underserved children continue in Title 1 schools and a subsidized housing county residence. Faber Piano Adventures’ very first books are the core curriculum. Teens volunteer to teach younger ones weekly. This is a win-win for the teens who are privileged to study music (and they quickly realize how very fortunate they are when they see kids whose parents cannot offer anything extra, let alone enough food). Teens also volunteer to teach seniors in facilities throughout the area. They bring the Adult Beginner Faber curriculum and learn how to teach through this curriculum. The exchanges, both with children and with seniors, change the lives of youth who are aware of the intrinsic gift of time and MUSIC on behalf of others.

    I can attest that it is the presence of music throughout my life that has empowered my mind and lifted my spirit again and again. I am deeply inspired by the Faber publications and staff.
    Thank you so very much for this writing. I will share it with all of my studio families and submit it to the Tacy Foundation’s monthly newsletter.

  • This blog post was just what I needed at the perfect time! While my piano practicing routine is going well, I am in dire need of dismantling a few bad habits and to foster new, helpful ones in my personal life. I appreciate your reminder to push through the pain as we grow.

  • I fractured my right wrist May 3rd. I’ve been practicing playing treble clef parts with my left hand. It really stretches my brain.

  • Thanks for the informative read. I try to use all the advantages that are presented. I am 79 years old and began lessons at 73. Progress is slow, but ongoing.

  • Thank you. This is easy-to-understand advice. It would do well for college students too.
    I have some beginners as college freshmen. This might inspire them.

  • I’ve been wondering why I want to lose weight at 75, but feel too lazy to put in the effort. Thanks for the great article. It also explains why some of my students come week after week without practicing. Much to think about. Thanks.

  • Spot on. I talk about this all the time with my adult students and sometimes with older children. Thank you!

  • Great message, with interesting and fun facts to support it. I’m inspired to seek new challenges!

  • After 35+ years of teaching piano to young and old, Covid happened and I ceased to be a piano teacher. Looking back, I probably learned as much, if not more, than my students….about music, about life, & about playing music. None of my students became concert pianists, or, to my knowledge, famous musicians. Although I still correspond with many of them (and/or their parents), at age 82, I miss them and know they have a love of music because of learning to play music. I no longer give lessons, but I do play duets with a friend weekly, and I continue to learn new music with daily (almost daily) practice…entertaining myself and my husband. To me, music is one of the most important parts of my life. It keeps me grounded, excited and always brings great pleasure. I hope the same for my former students. Thank you for your article.

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