Old Dogs & Their New Tricks

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, they say. I’ve always felt a sense of doom after listening to a statement like that come from someone’s mouth. It adds this extra layer of anxiety to my life, because it’s as if I must rush to make sure I become the perfect man before reaching the age of 30. I’ve heard it many times – “once you hit the age of 30, who you are becomes set in stone”.

Although it is true that it becomes harder for an individual to change after the age of 25, we are now learning that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks. I guess, by the age of 25, you have evolved through the various stages of adolescence and you have become an adult, with a developed brain and body. In that case, changing someone who is already fully developed would be harder than changing an individual who is still in the developmental stages of their life.

When you look at young children, they say that from birth to the age of 7, kids spend most of their time in alpha and theta brainwave cycles, which is the same state a person who is meditating or under hypnosis will experience. These children are in hyper learning states. They are open to suggestion and they are constantly being programmed by their environment.

One way a fully developed adult can experience change is through the experience of trauma. But apart from that, an established train of thought in our culture is that we are biologically fixed. I go back to the idea that the thought of being biologically fixed brings upon a sense of doom. I once held the notion that I was born an anxious person, depressive in nature, therefore I am not wired to be a happy person like some of my happy, go-lucky peers who had no idea why anyone with a university degree and a good family would ever feel upset. We tend to hold these preconceived notions that once the brain reaches maturity, its pointless to try and change it, because if we are fixed, then we just have to cop the fact that we are victims to our unlucky genetic lottery draw.

Then, modern day neuroscience came along to save the day. Thank fuck, right? Scientists are now beginning to realise that these beliefs are some of the biggest myths of modern day culture. But first, let’s go back to the 1970s when the Dalai Lama claimed that a mere thought could change the brain structure. At the time, Western scientists labeled his claim “ridiculous”. The cynical scientists of the West claimed that, while it would be nice to believe that our brains could change, it was just a myth coming from the mystical mouth of the Eastern monk and that even if the brain could change, it definitely couldn’t change from a single thought.

As a result, we spent most of the 20th century neglecting the idea that we could change the structure of our brains, up until recently when modern day neuroscience took a stand and changed the whole game. How did they find their clues? It so happens to be that researches took a trip to streets of London to collaborate with a bunch of taxi drivers.

Researches began studying the brains of these cabbies and found that their brains had significantly larger hippocampi, the brain structure devoted to spatial memory, and this was much larger than the average person.

Okay, but what does that have to do with the changing our brain structure?

Well, it is believed that because the streets of London are not based in a grid format system. Having to navigate your way through the streets of London was like navigating your way through a complex maze, and this requires the cabbies to have a vast internal spatial map. In fact, the streets of London are so difficult that the drivers are required to take knowledge tests upon application.

After this discovery, scientists began to re-evaluate what they once thought about the brain and came to the conclusion that brain change is possible depending on how you live your life.

So, what does all of this mean? In regards to our personal lives, no matter how old and “set in stone” you may like to believe you are, there is always room for change and improvement if you are willing to put in the energy and time. No longer are the days where we sit back and claim to be “genetically doomed” individuals.

If there is a will to change in a certain way, whether that may be in regards to a particular habit, personality trait or temperament, it is possible that with enough force, we are able to amend the mind to the way that is most favourable to us. With this information, it gives us hope that not only can we lead happier lives by changing the way in which we think, but we can also enhance performance and efficiency in our work lives, relationships and our spiritual lives.

Reference:

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor – pg 48-51

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