Can An Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

by Dr. Maria Theologides

It has long been believed that the adult brain was pretty much a physiologically static organ after critical developmental periods in childhood; and that after a certain age, it was just downhill with very little possibility of learning anything new. While it’s true that your brain is much more malleable during the early years and capacity declines with age, plasticity happens all throughout our lives.

Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout your life due to your environment, behavior, thinking, and emotions.

This concept isn’t new and mentions of a malleable brain go all of the way back to the 1800s. But with the relatively new capability to “see” into the brain through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), science has confirmed the brains incredible ability to keep learning and getting stronger.

In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research and co-founder of Posit Science, lists ten core principles necessary for the remodeling of your brain to take place:

  1. Change is mostly limited to those situations in which the brain is in the mood for it. If you are alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action, the brain releases the neurochemicals necessary to enable brain change. When disengaged, inattentive, distracted, or doing something without thinking that requires no real effort, your neuroplastic switches are “off.”
  2. The harder you try, the more you’re motivated, the more alert you are, and the better (or worse) the potential outcome, the bigger the brain change. If you’re intensely focused on the task and trying to master something for an important reason, the change experienced will be greater.
  3. What changes in the brain are the strengths of the connections between neurons that are engaged together, moment by moment, in time. The more something is practiced, the more connections are changed and made to include all elements of the experience (sensory info, movement, cognitive patterns). You can think of it like a “master controller” created for that particular behavior which allows it to be performed with remarkable facility and reliability over time.
  4. Learning-driven changes in connections increase cell-to-cell cooperation which is crucial for increasing reliability. Merzenich explains this by asking you to imagine the sound of a football stadium full of fans all clapping at random versus the same people clapping in unison. He explains, “The more powerfully coordinated your [nerve cell] teams are, the more powerful and more reliable their behavioral productions.”
  5. The brain also strengthens its connections between teams of neurons representing separate moments of successive things that reliably occur in serial time. This process allows your brain to predict what happens next and have a continuous “associative flow.” Without this ability, your stream of consciousness would be reduced to “a series of separate, stagnating puddles,” explains Merzenich.
  6. Initial changes are temporary. Your brain first records the change, then determines whether it should make the change permanent or not. It only becomes permanent if your brain judges the experience to be fascinating or novel enough or if the behavioral outcome is important, good or bad.
  7. The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways and involving precisely the same processes that control changes achieved through interactions with the external world. According to Merzenich, “You don’t have to move an inch to drive positive plastic change in your brain. Your internal representations of things recalled from memory work just fine for progressive brain plasticity-based learning.”
  8. Memory guides and controls most learning. As you learn a new skill, your brain takes note of and remembers the good attempts, while discarding the not-so-good ones. Then, it recalls the last good pass, makes incremental adjustments, and progressively improves.
  9. Every movement of learning provides a moment of opportunity for the brain to stabilize – and reduce the disruptive power of – potentially interfering backgrounds or “noise.” Each time your brain strengthens a connection to advance your mastery of a skill, it also weakens other connections of neurons that weren’t used at that precise moment. This negative plastic brain change erases some of the irrelevant or interfering activity in the brain.
  10. Brain plasticity is a two-way street. It’s just as easy to generate negative changes as positive ones. You have a “use it or lose it” brain. It’s almost as easy to drive changes that impair memory and physical and mental abilities as it is to improve these things. Merzenich says that older people are absolute masters at encouraging plastic brain change in the wrong direction.

So what does this mean practically?

  1. Identify the beliefs that don’t support your intention and those that do. We get trapped in negative patterns of thinking and minimize what we can achieve by limiting beliefs. By identifying what keeps us from reaching our goals and avoiding these thought patterns, we create new possibilities. Once we are open to anything being possible and within our reach, then we can work towards manifesting it in our lives. If our thought patterns support our dreams, we attract on an energetic level its manifestation into our lives.
  2. Embrace your positive emotions. Emotion is the fuel behind accomplishing your intention. Without emotion a thought is neutral, it has no real power. In other words, it is not enough to repeat positive affirmations if you are not feeling anything.
  3. Visualize. The brain can’t tell the difference between something real or imagined. When you mentally rehearse your new habits over and over, you strengthen your ability to manifest them in your life. Include as much detail as you can imagine. Create the Blue Print of what you want to create.
  4. What you think, what you say, what you do and what you feel must be aligned. Take actions that support your intention. Your actions have to match what you say you want and vice versa. You can’t think and feel one way and act another.
  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Change requires practicing a new habit. It follows the principle, “use it or lose it”, “practice makes perfect”.

Bottom line:  “Believe in what you want so much it has no choice but to materialise”, John Wilson