“Before growth mindset…”

Before we get ahead of ourselves with the ‘mindset craze’, we must acknowledge something much more basic and primitive: a sense of safety.  We must feel safe to make mistakes, safe to feel vulnerable in front of someone, safe to express what I am feeling even if it doesn’t seem to agree with what you are saying.  This sense of safety is the absolute first and foremost condition that we must establish before anything else can happen.

In fact, when a person does not feel safe in the environment in which they find themselves, their most evolved nervous system architecture, which includes their ability to vocalize their thoughts and tense their middle ear in order to focus on the frequency of a human voice – diminishes.  (This is related to the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges).

When a person does not get a consistent ‘doseage’ of safety, they are losing ‘muscle tone’ for a part of our system that helps us use our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – both critical in learning and remembering what we learn.

Without a sense of safety, the human brain cannot access its most evolved capacities that lead to the following:

growth mindset
impulse control
effort & perseverance
innovation & creativity


The condition of safety (which is relative to each person based on their experiences) must be met before a person can access areas of the brain related to creativity and abstract thought. 

Without a sense of safety, human beings – regardless of socioeconomic status, culture, and age – regress into lower evolved systems of defence, which inhibit the functioning of brain areas required for learning and new ideas.

To feel balance, we need both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ safety (see below for descriptions).  If we focus on one in detriment to the other, or if we confuse one for being able to replace the other, our sense of safety can be disrupted.




Forces in the world perpetuate our feelings of lack of safety. Most of us are unaware that these forces are having this effect on us.

We do not realize how much these forces are capable of manipulating our sense of safety.
Some of these forces include:

– Outdated science being used to punish/reward human behavior;
– Inadequacy marketing being used to activate addictive behaviors;
– Status-quo systems as remnants of the industrial era;
– The ‘attention economy’ and its currency of ‘time spent on site’;
– In-group/out-group distinctions and mortality salience;
– Habit-forming persuasive technology;
– Suppression of our most ‘evolved safety creation mechanisms’



What can we do to ‘create safety’?

There are two types of safety: something I call “bottom-up” or “conditional safety” and “top-down” or “unconditional safety”.  Both need to be attended to in order to feel a sense of balance.

You can create Bottom-Up Safety for yourself and staff…

by creating conditions in your organization that help with lowering the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  This includes creating optimal acoustic environments, including removing sounds that have a lot of lower or bass frequencies, and increasing sounds that have higher frequencies, especially prosodic voice and acoustic music.


Your voice matters: ‘flat affect’ (monotone/robotic speaking) and barking orders tends to activate the sympathetic nervous system and will lead those you are speaking to to be less tuned to your voice, and more distracted by background noises.


Play:  The only way we, as humans (this goes for mammals as well), will engage in play is if we are feeling safe.  If we sense danger nearby, the last thing we would do is play.  If you as the leader (the ‘alpha’) in the group, are playful and allow for play and games to happen, you are indicating the environment is safe.

This sense of safety will actually help staff and employees’ myelinated vagus system engage.
This means they will be more likely to:

  • tune their middle ear muscles to human voice frequencies,
  • look at people  in the eye and see their facial expressions,
  • engage areas of the brain related to imagination, abstract thought and creativity (which means deeper, more self-reflective and ‘connecting the dots’ type of thinking)
  • use their voice to express their thoughts and intentions


To cultivate ‘top-down’ safety…

…you need to give staff time to quiet their own minds and use their ‘mind muscles’ to self-regulate.  Any type of mindfulness practice will work.  15 minutes is ideal, but even just a few minutes will help build those ‘muscles’.  Paying attention to the breath, visualizing, mantras:  there are plenty of ideas out there.

Letting staff know that they can also tune in to themselves and notice their breathing, slow it down, listen intentionally to a specific sound gives them a sense of agency – the knowledge that they can use their mind in ways that they prefer.  A sense of agency over our own internal state is the ultimate source of safety because no one can take that from us; we can flex that muscle at will when needed.




So..  BEFORE growth mindset, grit, effort, perseverance, etc…  

Remember that by helping another person to feel safe in your presence, you are creating a condition for them to access the parts of their mind needed to develop those other skills.

If you want to promote growth mindset in your staff, you must first attend to their sense of safety to take risks, to be vulnerable and to trust in their own guidance to make choices that increase their feelings of well-being and success.






The above is a part of my upcoming book (title to be determined)

and a course I will be teaching this Summer (starting July 16),

‘The Neuroscience of Social Justice’

which will be held at Chicago Academia: School of Culture and Language

In that course (and my book), we’ll be covering the neurobiology of our ‘evolving safety creation mechanisms’ and how these affect all aspects of human behavior and evolution.