One of the most harmful stereotypes stunting human growth is the false belief that, even though you can train your body, you can’t train your mind.

I first noticed the sheer oddness of this terrible superstition while reading the comments sections on mixed martial arts websites. Many commenters talked about how fighters improved or didn’t improve their reflexes, strength, endurance, boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, etc. But when it came to the “intangibles”, like a fighter’s mental fortitude, cage generalship, fight IQ or coachability, these same commenters would act like a fighter’s attributes were set in stone. Everyone knew that fighters could improve their boxing. But for some reason, people often assumed that fighters just couldn’t improve their psychological readiness to fight. They apparently believed fighters could improve physically, but not emotionally or mentally.

Thank God these people are wrong.

We are quite capable of training our minds, our emotions, and our intellect. We can become smarter just like we can become stronger. We can build maturity just like we can build endurance. This is particularly good news for me, given that I am autistic and suffer from some pretty serious mental illnesses. For now, here are two stories about how I dealt with autism.

First, cinema. I knew that I couldn’t pick up on the social cues that everyone else could. So what did I do? I studied classic films, like the Godfather, and truly great TV series, like the Wire. In those great movies and shows, they showed all the social cues that I missed, but in an exaggerated way. It was easier for me to see because it was “bigger” and I could re-watch the movies and the individual scenes. I could go on YouTube and see commentary on some of the best scenes, which often explained exactly what was going on with the actors’ facial expressions and body language.

And of course, I enjoyed learning. Classic cinema really is incredible.

Another example comes from my young adulthood, when I was chasing my artistic dreams. I loved the sound and feel of the drums, and decided I wanted to play. So I learned how to play drums. But I didn’t just learn how to play the same beats everyone plays. I learned independence of limb, how to play contrasting rhythms with each hand simultaneously. (Us autistic people are good at very focused, high-intensity learning. Our obsessions are often an advantage, not a disability.) Learning independence of limb changed the way my right hand and left hand interacted with each other, and I know it changed my brain chemistry too.

And–this is important–it was fun.

It is probably obvious how watching classic movies could help me learn how to read social cues. It may not be obvious, though, how learning to play drums would change the way my brain works. But we have ever-increasing evidence that physical activity and physical exercise changes your mental and emotional states, and vice-versa.

Even in neuroscience, it was almost universally believed up until the 1970’s that the brain’s structure and function was largely fixed throughout adulthood. Scientists usually thought that as we aged, connections in the brain largely became stuck in place. Then, eventually, they faded or degenerated. Those beliefs are no longer dominant in the field, and now it is generally accepted that our brains can change and grow, no matter how old we are.

And you know what’s interesting? Studies keep showing that physical exercise appears to keep our brains healthy. In other words, yes, the mind and body are quite connected.

But now here’s an interesting catch.

One recent study showed that only voluntary exercise helps the brain.

In other words, if someone is forcing you to exercise, that won’t lead to improved brain function. Now here’s something I often think about. If I am forcing myself to exercise, is that going to be similarly unhelpful?

My own opinion, not backed up by science (yet) but strongly backed up by my own experience, is that I make the most progress when things are fun. I make the most progress when I’m like a kid, trying out new things. And why wouldn’t that be? When we are children, playful, beginners, that’s when our brains and minds are the most open to change.

And you can probably guess, without my help, what sorts of things cause the brain to actually shrink or retreat. Stress. Anxiety. Isolation and depression. A sedentary lifestyle. The usual list.

This is why I’m so suspicious of the idea that we can berate ourselves into positive change. It’s why I don’t believe in methods of “self-improvement” that stress people out or that isolate them. It’s why, whenever I talk about negative financial habits, I always point out that you’ve got to replace your habits with something you enjoy. It has never worked for me to just try to tell myself, “Don’t do that! It’s bad for you!”

So here are some interesting questions you might ask yourself if you feel that your mind is stuck, that you can’t train your intellect, or that your emotional impulses control you. How often do you do things simply because you want to do them? How often is self-improvement fun? How often is learning playful for you? How often have activities where you learned or improved been dismissed by other people as a “waste of time”, “not productive”, or “stupid”?

Because, see, here’s the thing. This autistic person became financially independent largely by becoming so good at listening to other people that they were willing to let me manage their money.

Thank God I “wasted so much time” playing drums and watching the Wire.