Old dog, new tricks

February 19th, 2015


Many of you have probably heard the expression, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Aside from marginalizing man’s best friend, there are other concerns with repeating this cliché. Namely, old dogs can be taught new tricks, even if it takes that old dog much longer than it would take his younger counterpart. Dogs – and even humans – stand to gain from questioning the validity of this old phrase.


Our brains can do much more impressive things than you already might know or suspect them to.


One pearl of wisdom demonstrated just how much more impressive they can be. I came across this fact in my 100-level psychology course  and was able to cling to it until now.


Basically, our brains function, in part, through the concept of neural plasticity.


Simply, this concept refers to the ability of your brain to mold and adjust its thoughts and behavioral patterns when confronted with new information and stimuli. In practice, the concept is much less complicated than it sounds. Essentially, you’re constantly considering experiences from your past. In more serious or memorable situations, you’re likely to change your behavior for the future.


Over time, though, the human brain’s ability to operate with neural plasticity diminishes. Just like our muscles atrophy and joints lock up, so too does the muscle of our brain – especially when it isn’t exercised regularly and properly. And before you start guiltily recalling all the “lazy days” you might’ve indulged in over the years, rest assured that losing neural plasticity is a natural process.


Aging effects all people, and embodies many forms. Neural plasticity is one of those forms. But before aging sets in, people tend to stop utilizing this handy tool of the brain.


Take a second to think about how you would fare in a foul-shot contest with a basketball. My own dismal luck in such a contest might mirror your own if you haven’t had the opportunity to shoot hoops lately. And your defense, similar to mine, might be, “Hey, I’m out of practice.”


But that’s just it. With each action, we condition our muscles to act and move in a certain way. And if you haven’t been conditioning your muscles to shoot perfect spirals and swish a basketball smoothly through the hoop, you wouldn’t expect that result when you step up to the line.


But if humans can grasp that common sense so easily, why do they not see the fault in their own lines of thinking and logic?


If time after time, you fail tests, maybe its time to stop blaming “test anxiety” or the teacher, and dig a little deeper for an explanation.


If you find yourself butting heads with a coworker or a friend time and again, pause before quickly throwing the blame onto the other person.


Think to yourself, “What can I control about these situations? Is there anything I can change?”


You don’t blame the size of the basketball hoop for your own lack of athleticism or improper form.


Your brain is no different.


The next time you find yourself in an all-too-similar situation that looks like it might be headed South, pause and think critically.


I’ve found that speaking to myself out loud and walking through each step of a problem is one of the strongest methods for overcoming these situations.


You’ll find out if you’ve fallen prey to misinterpretations, oversights, or assumptions. Over time, people are prone to become set in their ways, and eventually will stop thinking critically about old topics.


But, keep that neural plasticity working to your advantage. Try to reshape and mold your thinking.


Don’t become set in your ways if there are things you can fix or improve.


Become the best person you can by giving your full mental attention, ironing out any kinks, and sinking your next shot.