Alright, so we have all heard the phrase about how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You might have even used that phrase yourself after attempting to learn how to utilize the newest smartphone and could barely get the thing to turn on.
By the end of this article, we will be able to explain why it is entirely possible to teach an old dog a new trick and it is easier than you might think!
Everyone has habits. Some of us habitually wake up at 6:00 AM every morning no matter how hard we try to sleep in. Half of humans habitually put their left shoe on first while the other half habitually do the opposite. Habits can feel ingrained into your mind as if they are a part of you. They are like second nature, or what we refer to as procedurally learned. It doesn’t feel as if you are able to separate yourself from them.
This makes the idea of changing one of your habits seem like a daunting task, and it would not make sense to even attempt to do so. It seems impossible, right?
The answer is: not entirely!
Neuroplasticity is not just an impressive word to sprinkle into conversation, it is the secret to breaking unhealthy habits and replacing them with healthy ones. Neuroplasticity’s definition according to Encyclopedia Britannica¹ is “the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.”
A less scientific explanation would be that neuroplasticity is the ability for your brain to create new neural pathways, so you can literally carve new paths for your thought processes and actions. The more you incorporate a new habit into your repertoire, it will become easier and easier for the neurons in your brain to follow the newly formed path versus the old one. As our brains forge fresh patterns with our newly acquired habits, the paths of the old habit will rescind. So you are actually reprogramming your brain to react differently.
“One could speculate that this process opens up the possibility to reinvent yourself and move away from the status quo or to overcome past traumatic events that evoke anxiety and stress. Hardwired fear-based memories often lead to avoidance behaviors that can hold you back from living your life to the fullest.”
Let’s break down this process in a situation that some of you may relate to.
We are going to borrow Fictitious Fiona for this example. Fiona has the habit of going shopping and buying more stuff than she probably needs or actually wants when she’s under a lot of stress, especially when it has been a bad day at work. She has finally decided that she wants to be able to put a little more money in her savings account for a downpayment on a house, so she wants to quit impulsively shopping emotionally.
She starts with a conscious effort to look objectively at her emotions. It is easier said than done, but as Fiona begins to train herself to be on the lookout for emotional stressors, it starts becoming more natural (neuroplasticity is at it again!).
Once she is able to clearly identify when her stress levels are rising, she can begin keeping an eye out for that subconscious craving to go shopping, or even maybe just down the road to the mall after work. When that urge kicks in, Fiona can remind herself that she is not on autopilot, so she is making the choice to not go shopping. After she recognizes that emotion and quiets the thought, she has effectively begun retraining her brain from this behavior.
So the next time Fiona feels stressed out from work, instead of running to Target, she goes for a stroll around the neighborhood instead.
Just like Fiona, if we keep making a conscious effort to see our signifiers or triggers, it will soon become natural to respond in the way that you wish.
So I guess what they say isn’t true, you definitely are able to teach an old dog new tricks.
If you want to help your brain increase its neuroplasticity capacity or the speed in which it adapts, check out these tips!
- The more active your brain, the better! Stimulate it by increasing your activity levels, trying a new hobby or even learning a new language. Remember that using more than one sense at the same time is great exercise for your brain.
- Let yourself have enough sleep. It is hard for your body to function on all cylinders when it does not have enough time for its main motor to rest.
- Practice things with your non-dominant hand. This might seem like an odd one, but the challenge helps kick your brain’s efforts into the next gear.
- Read for pleasure. It is a healthy exercise for your brain, and you now officially have an excuse to give yourself some time to sit down and enjoy a good book.