“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a proverb I learned in primary school along with other common English idioms. It never occurred to me at the time that the saying contradicted the also-common “You’re never too old to learn.”
It turns out that even if the battle between “fixed mindsets” and “growth mindsets” is largely imaginary, “You’re never too old to learn” is the more accurate of the two sayings. Learning is always possible, even if it can become more difficult with time.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to respond to our environment and experiences by changing its structure, creating new circuits, signals, and neural pathways. New connections within the structure of the brain is the physiological evidence of learning, whether the content being learned is how to walk (motor function), how to make toast with peanut butter (object function), or how to adapt with and navigate a difficult family relationship (relational function).
Today I learned about three strategies that support learning and the rewiring of the brain:
- physical exercise—especially cardiovascular exercise
- direct learning—such as through sustained study or repetitive practice; and
- focused attention—such as in meditation
The exercise suggestion surprised me, but I’ve noticed that people pushing for significant change in an area of their lives will often take up some form of physical discipline or training alongside that attempt to chage: a program of weightlifting, walking, running, yoga, or another organized practice like a martial art.
I would never have thought of these kinds of exercise as something that drove literal brain changes, but that’s what the research suggests.
“Old dogs can learn new tricks” because our brains aren’t cement or hardened clay. They’re soft, mushy, and more resilient than I’m sometimes tempted to acknowledge.
We can learn: it’s possible. Whether it’s likely is a combination of our will, our finding or making social networks and other structures that support our learning, and how motivated we are to learn and keep learning even in the face of resistance.