new tricks for old dogs?

New habits at any age

Have you, to some extent, bought into our society’s assumption that we cannot teach an old dog new tricks? That the negative stereotypes around ageing are true and that it is all a downward spiral from midlife onwards?

If so, then most likely your personal experiences of ageing are somewhat proving to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, possibly with unwelcome side effects on your self-esteem. Luckily, these assumptions about the linear and negative model of ageing don’t prove to be accurate. This is news worthy of celebration!

Neuroscience has finally come to the rescue to all those seniors who believe that their time to shine expired a long time ago. Thanks to modern scientific technology, we are now able to determine how our brains work and what this means for seniors.

Since 1992, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines have been providing scientific evidence that our brains don’t just whither away with old age. Quite to the contrary, the statement ‘use it or lose it’ has gained new momentum. We always knew that the brain is a muscle needing exercise. But now we have a more in-depth understanding of how this muscle is best exercised.

Functional brain scan experiments have shown that our brains are neuroplastic. This simply means that the brain is able to change irrespective of a person’s age. Indeed, change happens in our brain all the time. Whenever we are doing something, thinking about something, learning something new, there is a change that takes place in the brain. We are making brand-new neural connections.

Neural connections, which are made repeatedly, lead to new hardwiring in the brain. Learning a new skill, for example playing the piano, is about establishing new hardwiring. The implications of this scientific insight for seniors are huge and exciting.

If we have settled into accepting that during our third age we are hopelessly at the mercy of habitual and unchangeable ways of being, it is time to join the opposition. Even seniors can alter their mental, physical or emotional patterns (their habits). Change is possible because the brain makes new neural connections until we take our last breath.

In case you see yourself as an old dog and you do want to learn new tricks – change a habit or learn something new – this is your time to shine. Science is now backing us up that we can do this, senior or not. With the scientific evidence in hand, we can work with our brain rather than trying to fight it – which would not bring joy anyway.

New tricks are about creating new wiring and connections in the brain. Over time, these new connections will become hardwired, thereby establishing a new habit or skill. To do so takes time and focus, sometimes also the guidance from an objective, supportive outsider. But all seniors can do it. So which habit will you change and what new skill do you want to learn?

Here is a very brief instruction on how to change a habit. For example, if we want to change something, it is of no use to focus on the problem. Hence, do not attempt to focus on what you no longer want to do or be. If you take this approach, you are strengthening the exact hardwiring in your brain that you want to change. Instead, focus on what it is that you do want and give that your undivided attention. Your brain is your co-pilot – you are the captain! Together, you form a great team.

In the next edition, I will provide further insights from neuroscience regarding habits, which are habitually hard to change.

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