How Positive Mentors Help Us Tap into the Neuroscience of Success

“When you focus on the positive, you are affecting neural processing.”

What kind of support is required to help students succeed—in high school and beyond? It’s a good question. And one that isn’t always easy to answer. But study after study suggests that having a mentor—loosely defined as a trusted, experienced individual who can guide students towards their long-term goals and objectives—can make all the difference.

According to MENTOR, the national mentoring partnership organization, young adults who have a mentor are more likely to actively participate in school, to have better attitudes about education, to form positive social relationships, to graduate from high school, and to enroll in college after graduation. In fact, more than one in three students at risk of not graduating from high school grew up without an adult mentor. Yet new research suggests that positive mentoring can make such a big difference that you can see its impacts on a brain scan.

The word “positive” was used intentionally there, by the way. Anthony Jack, Director of the Brain, Mind, and Consciousness Lab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says that the way one approaches a mentoring relationship matters just as much as having a mentor in the first place.

“People approach this kind of coaching in different ways,” he says. “One has to do with positively reinforcing and encouraging a mentee’s aspirations and goals. The other has to do with identifying problems and weaknesses. That’s a negative style.”

Jack and his colleagues have scanned the brains of 20 undergraduate students after participating in one of these two different mentoring styles using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They found some fascinating differences in brain activation. Individuals who received the positive mentoring showed strong activation in brain regions involved with positive affect, stress reduction, and future planning.

The findings, Jack argues, support the idea that the brain is supporting an activity called “visioning,” defined as “[a] mental process in which images of the desired future are made intensely real and compelling to act as motivators for the present action.” Simply put, the positive mentoring helped participants reduce their stress and focus forward on big picture goals. Negative mentoring, however, kept them in the moment—increasing their stress and making them think about what and where they may be lacking.

“What we see is that how mentors help their mentees focus, how they make them think, is important. And when you focus on the positive and future-looking things, you are affecting quite a lot of their neural processing,” says Jack. “You’re putting them into a different mental state than when you are simply pointing out mismatches between their expectations and what they’ve actually achieved. And we’ve seen that people will change much more effectively if you focus them in this positive, future-looking way instead of just pointing out all the stuff they are doing wrong.”

For years, organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, I Could Be, and Junior Achievement—along with corporations like AT&T, through its Aspire program—have been integral to connecting mentees with mentors who could shape their lives positively. But what does it really mean to offer positive mentoring?

Research out of the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine revealed a bit more insight on that front, finding that junior faculty who had mentors experienced significantly higher career satisfaction over those who did not. Mitchell Feldman, M.D., studied which aspects of the mentoring relationship were facilitating that increase in satisfaction. He and his colleagues analyzed dozens of structured interviews with faculty members about what makes for a good mentoring relationship.

They found five key attributes were critical to success:

  • Reciprocity
  • Mutual respect
  • Clear expectations
  • Personal connection
  • Shared values

This work suggests that having a strong connection, personally and professionally, can help individuals better achieve their goals—and that’s likely true whether one is a high school student or a medical doctor. And it only takes one one mentor to make a difference in a student’s life. A single positive connection can help students learn, grow, and “vision” a successful future. And as it turns out, face time isn’t required for that positive connection to work. Studies by researchers at Drexel University and University of Massachusetts Boston show that virtual mentoring, or e-mentoring, can also result in positive outcomes. And since teens seem to spend their lives tethered to their devices these days, with the Pew Research Center finding that 63 percent of teens report texting daily, technology can help bridge the gaps created by geography and availability. Because of technology’s sheer reach, always-on nature, and ability to be customized, virtual mentoring also has the added benefit of allowing mentoring organizations to better “fit” mentors and mentees. That means they’ll be able to foster the kind of relationship that allows for the reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connections, and shared values required for a positive working relationship.

In the end, it only takes one. In person, online, in the classroom, or on the job. One mentor, one positive connection to make a difference and help set up a student’s brain for future opportunity and success. You could be that one. Get inspired by these real-life mentors, and find out how to change a young person’s life for the better.


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