Can Old Dogs Really Learn New Tricks?
Can Old Dogs Really Learn New Tricks?

Dear Tacit,

Is it really possible to change who we are?  I’m up there in years and have been doing things a certain way for a long time.  It just seems like it would be too hard to start to be different now.

Signed: Can Old Dogs Really Learn New Tricks

Dear Can New Dogs Really Learn New Tricks,

I promise you; every single person can (and does) change – at many points in their lives.  We are creatures who evolve.  Every new life circumstance and experience helps to shape the next step of our journey, in small and subtle ways.  So, without even being aware of it (and without any conscious effort at all on your part), you have already been changing, with every new day you have been living.

Let’s break it down even further.  Human beings have this thing called neuroplasticity of the brain.  Basically, this means our brains are malleable – they adapt and change based on need or habit, at both a conscious and unconscious level.  The brain takes in external information through our senses and reads the messaging that comes from within our internal systems, on a continuous and automatic basis. The pathways in our brains reorganize themselves by forming new neural connections on an ongoing basis.  Every new situation brings us more knowledge and understanding of the world around us and, if we are lucky, of ourselves.  Sometimes, this new information just gets stored away.  Life might be happening too fast for us to do much more than add to our internal database.  But when we take the time to sit and think about our experiences and the world around us, we form connections and increased awareness.  We transfer the learning that stems from the raw data collection process into intentional new links and possible concepts (through imaginings and ponderings and visualizations) which create the foundational blocks for intentional change.  This mental sense of self is called introspection – and it is the only one of our senses that actually gets stronger with age.  It creates wisdom.  And wisdom is what we need to trigger change of any kind.

Now don’t get me wrong, change is hard.  The longer we have been doing something a certain way, the more we have ingrained a habitualized response pattern into our neuro-pathways.  So, change can take effort and work.  But even with how complicated the wiring in our brains might be, there is a very simple way to start to reprogram things.  We need to practice.  It is through the repeated firing of the new patterns (neural pathways) in our brains that the old habits fade away.  The brain is not technically a muscle, but it can be helpful to think of it like one.  The more we use certain neural pathways, the more cemented they become. Likewise, the less we do something in a particular way, the easier it is to dissolve those neural connections. So, in essence, the more often we exercise (or repeat) the new ways of thinking and acting, the more strengthened and easier the change becomes.

There are lots of great strategies to help make change easier – we can discuss those in another article, if you would like.  But the first and most important step to creating a change that will last is to want it badly enough.  Change can be uncomfortable when it’s new.  It takes hard work and it’s not always fun to do.  But if we can remind ourselves of the reasons that we want the change more than we focus on the effort and awkwardness that the change requires, the shift to the new neural pathway will be smoother.  Our brains are designed to embrace the easier route.  Motivation and desire do not always grow from the first steps of the change process.  Self-discipline and intentional decision-making (based on logical reasoning) often grease the wheel of change to get things rolling at the start of the process.  Figure out why you want the change and anchor firmly into the knowledge of its importance.  Practice the change over and over again, even when it’s hard.  And very soon, your brain will shift directions.  Before you know it, the change will be easier and more satisfying, and it will become a new habit that no longer requires any effort on your part.

Take care!

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